Archive for transportation

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:

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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?

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How Big is the Sky?

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How big is the sky?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, let’s go find out.

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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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2012: An Airline Pilot’s View

Posted in air travel, airline, airline pilot blog with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 29, 2012 by Chris Manno

Just thinking last night, flying back to DFW: where has this year gone?

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It’s been another year and thousands of miles below the nose of the Boeing, one flight hour at a time, about 800 hours in 2012. The view has been everything from stunning to mundane, inspirational to humbling, but all of it good. Where to begin? How about this week?

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Winter time in West Palm Beach: the winds come out of the north, meaning you land to the west–which means a long final approach over the Atlantic, facing westbound into the blazing sunset. That small cloud schooner happened by at just the right time to offer the perfect sun shade on approach.

Rewind just to last week. Punched out of a cirrus deck at 38,000 feet and looking down . . . what the heck is that?

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A West Texas dirt sky: dust and grit from the Panhandle swirling up over 15,000 feet, engulfing Lubbock, Texas. A late year dust storm, powerful and thick. Returning from the coast five hours later, in the darkness, all you could see below was a dull glow of city lights through the red cloud still swirling there.

Of course no look back at 2012 would be complete without a shot of the Utah badlands, a view you just can never tire of:

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And I never, ever tire of watching Bryce Canyon, Utah, repaint itself according to the sunlight and the season.

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Spring of 2012 brought beautiful weather to the Pacific Northwest, of course, making for some stunning mountain views:

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I never tire of the views of Mt. Ranier, always covered in some type of cirrus veil. Colder temps? Northern winds and climate? Not sure why, but the sky is usually calm, with decks of stately cirrus laid across the sky from horizon to horizon.

Spring also brought wildfire season, and 2012 had plenty in Colorado:

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Seems like the fires went on longer than ever this year, but maybe not. And storm season made spring and summer the usual challenge, although the Boeing radar and the ability to cruise at higher altitude makes the season easier to manage:

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Sometimes you just have to go off the magenta line and plot your own course, you know? And despite all the technology plotting course lines for you, there’s nothing wrong with a sailor’s eye finding the best path through the towering canyons:

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That’s kind of what being a pilot is all about, isn’t it? Freedom you just don’t have on the earth or the sea, for that matter. Still, that’s nothing new, is it? But here’s what is:

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Technology at the cutting edge: American Airlines is the first and only airline certified by the FAA to use all digital flight charts and publications in all phases of flight. So there’s my iPad with the most up-to-date approach depictions and at a touch of the correct tab, any chart I need–rather than the 2,000 (literally–not kidding) pages of flimsy paper in several volumes we used to carry. “Welcome to the curse,” a First Officer said to me when I became one myself.  He meant the tedious posting of chart revisions twice a month–and at last that curse has been lifted.

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Not “new” on board this year but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention them: the hard-working professionals on the far side of the cockpit door. Another year of friends, laughing, commiserating, being a crew together coast-to-coast. Once you do it, you’ll know what I mean.

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Which of course brings up–at least for me–pie in the sky. A lot this year; how can that be bad?

Fall brought those sunset departures from the California shore, explaining where the term “Gold Coast” came from if you bother to look:

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And of course I always do–and if you follow this blog, you know I share the view with you. And here’s that magic moment, the million dollar view, cruising east at dusk: the sky burns red and fiery orange, halfway from day to night, the moon caught rising in between:

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Not all of the stunning views are as noble or uplifting. The sad stuff gets your attention in a different way.

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After super-storm Sandy, here’s the approach to JFK, crossing the shore: no lights, no power, beach sand driven blocks inland.

Heartbreaking to see, but there’s no avoiding it is there?

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That’s where sunset comes as a relief. From the darkness comes time to reflect, to savor the perfect world humming around you in the cockpit. Regardless of where you’ve been, it’s always coming home that’s the best. It’s been a great year, great flying–looking for more of the same in 2013. And if you stick around this blog next year, you’ll have the inside view, too.

See you then.

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Dear Santa: The Airline Pilot Wish List

Posted in air travel, airline, airline cartoon, airline pilot blog, cartoon with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 9, 2012 by Chris Manno

December 2012

Subject: Wish List

From: Blog, JetHead

To: Claus, Santa

Sir:

As you know, it’s that time of year again. How about if we go ahead and stipulate the facts from last year: no, I haven’t been “good,” whatever that is, and neither have you so let’s drop that subject.

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And yes, I have more than I probably deserve, what with a good gig in the Boeing left seat, seniority to be a little picky (still flying the all-nighter, Fatman? Bummer.) trip-wise.  So this year, on my Wish List, I’m asking for less:

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For starters, how about a little less “ice fog?” I know, for you it’s “no big deal,” Rudolph, red nose, blah-blah-blah. But for me, it’s a Category III approach hand-flown to a fifty foot decision height (admit it: you’re cheating with the “red nose” crap, aren’t you?) which is no easy trick. Yes, I do appreciate the HUD you sent me on the Boeing two years ago . . .

. . . but despite the cosmic technology, less ice fog, more VFR this winter, please.

Also, less “fine dining.” I’m not talking about in flight, like this:

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Or the usual Pie in the Sky that I keep eating to see if I can grow an ass as fat as yours:

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Instead, I’m referring to the more typical “in airport” fine dining like this:

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This is more the norm for “fine” airport “dining,” and it’s all too familiar to have not enough time for anything other than a five minute “shove a burger down your throat” experience at an airport food court between flights. Or worse, depending on the layover hotel and the local weather.

Which is another thing an airline pilot could do with less of: layover hotels.

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I know you never do overnights in hotels, but those of us who do at least 150 days a year would appreciate a little less. Because depending on the location, the foraging for food can become pretty grim as well.

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Got Imodium?

In fact, there’s the main thing all flight crews would like less of: less hotels, lines, vans, crowds, airport “security,” bad nights of sleep in noisy hotels, scant food, long hours and if you’re still with me, here’s the one thing we all want more of: home.

Because on Christmas, just like every holiday, birthday, anniversary or significant milestone any family ever dreamed up, there will be flight crews in the air or worse, stuck on the ground in “that hotel,” wishing for a little more home and a lot less away.

I know, Fatman, that isn’t the deal: flying means away–a lot. So just knowing that of the things I want less I’m going to get more and more; and the things I want more I’m going to have less and less (what are we up to now, 19 flight days a month?), we’ll just forget about your “list,” I’ll behave as awful as I always do this year, and we’ll call it even.

Thanks for nothing,

JetHead

P.S. When are you going to learn how to bid?

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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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Meditations From A Darkened Sky.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline pilot blog, airliner, airlines, flight crew with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 10, 2012 by Chris Manno

Day doesn’t give up the sky easily.

Last ditch, the blue fistfights with darkness like death: parts of the horizon arc fade differently, the sun exits dramatically or not; subtle or sudden, Ophelia or Faustus, depending on which way you’re flying and how high you are.

I mean east to west: bam, the sunset cattle-brands the horizon into an angry tight lip, then slams the sky shut like a granny purse, socking away the day for safekeeping, to snore under a fat pillow of layered cottony cirrus and leftover cloud piles, indifferent, floating; nothing to see here folks, so move along.

But eastbound? Not so fast: a jaundice swirls into the cloud bottoms, then fever fires the skyline like a malaria flush, the sun sighs itself westward, the horizon twists a blue frown–if you’re high enough, say forty-some-thousand–the downturn matches the curve of the earth, wingtip to wingtip. If you could hear it, dusk would be a groan; resignation, played out and spent, the day says “uncle;” hold that thought for tomorrow, finito.

Moonrise, maybe? Or not, depending on which rosary bead the month assigned to the comatose day, barely on life support and just waiting for last rites if the priest would ever get here. Yet, what is there to save? You pull the plug or you don’t, but the day flatlines regardless.

Like the cartoon before the main feature, the moon wants you to laugh, to goof around. “What the hell!” you say then wish you had the words back. Gotcha, again: joker luna burns her way through an undercast like an Alamagordo A-bomb. Or, just plain, unadorned, served up like tomorrow tossing a volleyball into today, shiny bone-white and perfect fine china, place setting for one but you’ll have to eat with your hands.  Any old way, any late day, the moon’s solid like the inner workings of a clock, underwriting tides and light in waves and wedges, depending on which blue you sail on.

And we sail on. Lights of passing ships, red on the right means a jet headed your way, emerald green and we’re fellow travellers. Sometimes moonlight makes their contrail glow like the luminescence of the deep sea and we’re just so many minnow streaking god-knows-where or why. Other times you only see the contrail when you cross it, then bump like a dumptruck when you do.

Opening act, the moonrise is: hey, where are you from? Seen it before; climb into the sky and race you till dawn, except celestial fine china never tires–but you do. You’re looking to the main event anyway: the Milky Way.

But tonight the Milky Way is part skim: atmospheric crud, even seven miles high, and you’ve got bad seats for the whole night show. What the hell, find your friends–Orion, never lets you down; Cassiopeia, vain beauty like you even looking at her, Ceres, you dog, and you, your jet flashing like a pimpmobile from below, insignificant from above. It’s a celestial tailgate, but you’re fake, manmade and only flying for now. But still.

Once it’s night, it’s just dark. Sure, we have the wubba, the blankie, the 14-satellite good to fifty feet GPS accuracy, and the guy in the left seat, keeper of the algorithms of gravity and lift and flight like the atomic clock that says when and how you fly and land. Because unlike the days sailing the night–you’re not really part of the heavens: visitor parking–and there’s a limit.

That’s okay. The non-stop must stop; it’s not “just flying,” which everything else in the sky does, but rather, “a flight.” And you, flyer for life, guy with the hands on the controls and the deliberately silent, taciturn “you’ll never get anything out of me” recalcitrance yet flying for all the years of your life, there is this. All of this; and you’re one lucky son of a bitch every time your feet leave the ground and the night sky lets you fly anyway.

When it’s all said and done, and you’re slipping through the terminal headed for home, and others wonder about your sly smile, you can’t help but think to yourself, how could I not?

But nobody would “get it,” really, so why say a word? Better just leave it at that.

A Pilot’s Eye View Part 1: The Way I See It.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline cartoon, airline pilot blog with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 17, 2012 by Chris Manno

If you’re a pilot, you probably see things about flying differently.  And it starts first thing in the morning.

Not so much looking at what’s in the local area, because you’re not spending any time there, right? It’s what’s happening across your route of flight that matters. There are other jets in the air transiting the route now, and their reports will affect the route, altitude and speed of your flight a couple hours from now, so you at least want to know what’s up and what the route planning for your flight is based on.

Okay, NOW you pay attention to more than just the road: which way is the prevailing surface wind? There are cues everywhere, but the most obvious and the most significant is, which way are the planes taking off?

And you’re headed north; they’re taking off south, means a longer departure with a big turnaround, so a longer outbound flight, right? Bad news?

Actually, no, it’s good news: you’re coming BACK from the north, so landing south will save you a few minutes on the go-home leg. That’s key.

Double check your gate. Of course, the smart pilot (or smart passenger) has even more current gate and flight information on a smart phone:

Just getting around the giant DFW Airport (the entire island of Manhattan could fit within the airfield boundary) takes time, but the payoff is in the sight of your jet from the Skylink train. I never get tired of spotting “my jet” from afar.

It’s a good feeling, knowing the jet’s fueled and ready to do your bidding for a day, to cross a few thousand miles and return to earth a workday later.

Now, I’m not a big “outside guy,” meaning I’m not a First Officer so the aircraft external inspection–we call it “the walkaround”–is not my preflight duty. But I’ll take you downstairs just this once.

You’ve got your head in the nose gear well–tow bar’s hooked up, ready for pushback. The red streamer is the pin in the steering bypass valve: the power to the tiller in the cockpit is disabled during pushback because with the cockpit nosewheel steering powered, any rudder movement will be transmitted to the nose wheel at about 3,000 psi of hydraulic pressure. They’ll show you that pin right before you taxi so you know your steering is enabled once again.

Now here’s a really cool feature that ought to make anyone who ever flies anywhere stand up and say, “I love Boeing jets.”  Seriously, this is amazing:

Your head’s now in the main wheel well, in the center of the fuselage–just look at the green light: that’s Boeing’s pure genius at work, it’s a nitrogen generator that fills the fuel tanks as they empty with inert, non-flammable nitrogen gas. Will not burn or explode no matter what happens in or to the fuel tank. How smart is that? And what a safety feature.

Okay, below, that’s the “vacuum zone” marked out in red: if that engine is running, you don’t want to be anywhere near the red zone, as it will literally suck you off your feet and into the engine. I’ve seen these CFM-56 engines create such a vacuum ahead of the intake that moisture from the concrete swirls up off the tarmac in a swirl and into the engines.

Here’s one main gear strut:

This is the main set of “sneakers” for the jet: they’re inflated to 200 psi and will roll up to 190 mph on some take-offs.

Really got to love the fat Boeing wing. And it sits higher off the ground than the MD-80′s spindly wing–after 10,000+ flight hours in the MD-80, this thing looks huge. Stay heads-up on the ramp: there’s ground traffic zipping every which way around your aircraft, and with hearing protection in use, you won’t hear them coming.

And watch out for jet blast from other aircraft adding breakaway power to start their taxi or pivot. See why I don’t come down here that often?

And back around the left wing . . .

Okay, satisfied? But while the exterior inspection is going on, here’s the captain’s biz you need to attend to. The flight plan, which, as you were already thinking about, will have a lot of assumptions based on the early flyers–which may or may not be valid now.

So you think fuel numbers based on your best instincts: winds? Ride? Weather enroute?

It’s all about creating and preserving options, and that’s all about fuel. Trust your instincts–if you think you need more, you do. Get it.

There’s the info sheet for the cabin crew–they’ll program that into the Boeing system that makes the PA’s with the video of the safety demo.

Seems impossibly calm and quiet when the jet’s empty, doesn’t it?

But it won’t been empty for long. The caterers have been here . . .

All’s well below and in back, so now it’s at last time for you to head into the flight deck.

First thing, get the dual Inertial Reference Units cooking. They’re just about at eye level when you step into the cockpit.

Next, stow your suitcase in the cubbyhole behind your seat:

Kitbag slides in beside the seat–no, there’s not much room, but it is what it is.

Now sit yourself down:

Get the instrument lights up:

Time to fire up your side of the cockpit: lights, displays; IRUs to align, comm cords, headset, pertinent paperwork; get the official weather off of the printer and make sure it agrees with the take-off performance planning–if not, adjust the plan. Consider the wind and the power setting.

A glance around the cockpit, scanning panels and at once you know every switch is where it should be or if not, you set it where it needs to be:

Now, you’re ready to go. Once the First Officer is settled in, we’ll check all of the navigation and performance data in the Flight Management System, verify the flight route clearance and waypoints, then run the checklists to get this 170,000 pound machine with 166 people on board into the air.

That story will be part two, coming soon.

What’s it like to be a flight attendant at a major airline?

What kind of lifestyle and career comes with a position as a flight attendant?

We get first person answers from a career flight attendant: the ups and downs, the joys and pains.

Next, on JetHead Live!

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All in a Pilot’s Day: Thunderstorm Zen and the Captain’s Firewall.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline delays, airline pilot blog, airliner, airliner take off, flight crew, passenger bill of rights, pilot with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 29, 2012 by Chris Manno

Head pounding. Look down at your right calf: a liter bottle of water, mostly full.

Stupid.

Just flew 3 hours from DFW to DCA–should have paid attention to hydration. Now, sitting near the end of runway 1 at Reagan national, it’s too late: the damage is done.

Been sitting here for over two hours now. In a thunderstorm. Which has hit the tower with a lightning bolt that fried their primary radios–so now they’re using a weak backup radio that sounds like the controller is using a tin can on a wire.

More delay while the radio situation gets fixed, plus the hand-offs from tower to departure ain’t working. Wait.

Call the tower: “Tower, American 445.” Wait.

“American 445, go.” Sounds like her head is in a bucket.

“We’re wondering about a take-off time, as we’re bumping up against some Passenger Bill of Rights time constraints.”

Like three hours–an hour from now–then we need to go back to the gate and probably, cancel the flight. Passengers have a right to not go anywhere, rather than sit on a plane waiting to go somewhere.

“We don’t have any information,” comes the tinny reply. Thanks for your help.

Ignored several phone calls from the cabin crew already, saying passengers are antsy, wondering what the latest is. When I ignore the interphone chime, the F/O has to field the questions to which there are no answers anyway. I prefer to isolate myself to focus on weather, fuel, timing, the departure procedure to the north (the FAA will violate you for even a tiny stray from the radial) and a clear path on radar. Which I can’t see because our nose–and our radar dish–is facing south. I make a PA every thirty minutes or so, telling passengers what I know: westbound departures are on hold due to weather on the departure routing. The lady in the tower sounds like her head is in a bucket. I don’t tell them that, but still.

Already tried to negotiate a departure to the south or even east in order to air file a route west–craftily uploaded an extra 3,000 pounds of fuel before pushback, after seeing the storm front marching on Washington as we landed.

No dice.

More calls from the back: passengers want to use their cell phones; they’re getting up . . .

Tell them no–if they use phones, the cabin crew has to make another aisle pass to ensure they’re off for take-off (FAA regulation) and if we’re cleared, we need to take the runway, check the weather–then go.

Sure, they have connections and people waiting. But that can wait till we get there. What I want to attend to is a new and higher power setting that creates less time on the runway; an optimum flap setting that gives a better climb gradient, and a wind correction to stay on the safe side of the departure radial.

That’s where the “firewall” comes in: if I let connections, cell phones, Passenger Bill of Rights or even my own next flight tomorrow (not going to be legal if we keep delaying) mix with the important considerations like fuel, weather, radar, performance and power settings, something’s getting messed up.

It’s not that I don’t care–I really do. But if I don’t attend to the latter set of considerations, the former won’t matter, will they? Drink some water, rehydrate. Relax. Run through your list of priorities for right now. Pay attention to right here, right now. Be ready to do “now” right; worry about later, well, later.  That’s the thunderstorm zen, the captain’s firewall.

It happens fast: “445, start ‘em up–you’re next to go.”

Fine. I reconfirm with the F/O the heading plan (310 is good–but 305 is better. If we have to correct back right to the radial, fine–but we do not stray east . . . a full radar picture before we roll, static.”

Raining cats and dogs, hard to see, swing out onto the runway and grab every inch. Stand on the brakes, full radar sweep–decide.

“You good?” I ask the F/O as a formality–because I’m looking at him and I can tell from his face whether he is or isn’t from his look no matter what he says. And if he isn’t okay or doesn’t look okay, if maybe his firewall or zen are under seige, I’ll know and we won’t go until everything adds up.

We roll; relief when we’re past abort speed; mental chant “engines only, engines only” reminding myself of which of the hundreds of warnings I’ll abort for on that rain-slicked postage stamp of a runway; throttles speedbrakes THEN reverse, amen. The jet rockets into the whipping rain undaunted; love the big fans at a high power setting. We climb, buck, dodge, weave and finally . . . cruise at 40,000 feet above all the turmoil as the lights of the nation wink out.

Landing after midnight, home finally at 1:30am. Crew Schedule calls: “Sleep fast, we’ve slipped the departure of your Seattle turn just long enough to keep you legal. You’re still on it.”

Eight hours in the cockpit today; another eight tomorrow. Plus a few hours to sleep in between.

Erase today–it’s over, safely and smartly done. Rest, and save a little zen for tomorrow. No doubt, you’re going to need it.

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