Archive for travel

Your Pilot Isn’t Thinking About Your Connection–and That’s Good.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline cartoon, airline delays, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 7, 2014 by Chris Manno

 

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There’s a blessed silence in the cockpit right before pushback, immediately after the number one flight attendant reports “cabin ready,” and slams the cockpit door securely shut. Before that, the usual boarding chaos filters through the open cockpit door, the clatter of catering the forward galley, ramp workers stepping in to deliver some cargo paperwork, maybe some aircraft maintenance techs wrapping up required service or repairs.

But the noise and activity isn’t all that ends with the door slam. We call it “sterile cockpit,” an industry-wide concept rooted in the best Crew Resource Management (CRM) practices that dictates all non-flight essential conversation ceases in order to focus solely on the prescribed, often complex procedures required to fly the jet.

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In other words, leave all distractions behind and keep your head in the game. And I take that concept a step further–I clear my mind of everything except procedures (there are a multitude) and situational awareness: he’s moving, we’ll wait … wingtip clearance here … wind shift, at least for now … we’re heavier than planned.

Not just sterile cockpit verbally, but mentally as well. When you’re moving eighty tons of metal and a hundred sixty warm bodies, there’s no room for distraction. My airline (like most, I assume) has done a good job of minimizing outside considerations through the basic premises from which the pilot-in-command operates.

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For me that means I’ve “pre-worried” about the extraneous considerations–both yours and mine–and for the good of all, I’ve put them aside, compartmentalized them, and now look beyond them. When I say yours, I mean your down line connection, your time schedule, your reason for flying whether business or pleasure. Mine often overlap yours–my days off, my family plans, my important events, even my own physical stress of time zone shifts, late hours that could creep later, and my pay considerations.

Doesn’t mean these concerns are invalid, unimportant or dismissed–they’re just not on my mind as I balance crucial flight variables as they unfold. They’re fully addressed in the basic premises of our airline operation, stipulated in a hierarchy a passenger might not like, but which makes the most sense for a safe flight operation:

First, safety, second, passenger comfort and third, schedule. Yes, your connection, even your arrival time, is in third place. Just remember, I have similar personal concerns and I’m putting them completely aside as well. Here’s why.

A recent Flight Safety Institute report highlighted one of the factors that contributes to the comparatively high accident rate per flight hour experienced by air ambulance operators. One factor mentioned was the very real life or death pressure perceived by the pilots: if we don’t land on this spot, at this time, regardless of circumstances, a life may be lost.

That’s a very vivid and understandable urgency that would be difficult to put out of a pilot’s awareness. Nonetheless, the air ambulance operators with the lowest accident rates are the ones who’ve put CRM at the forefront, refocusing on flight safety limitations as a governing principle and setting aside all else.

 

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Now, your kid’s birthday, your business or other event, yes, they’re important–so are mine. But they aren’t life or death, are they? But as flight distractions, whether it’s an air ambulance or an air carrier, they could easily become exactly that.

From the moment we push back, the clock in my captain’s mind runs on weight, not minutes: how many pounds of fuel do I have, which translates into the ability to remain aloft. So, when you (or maybe a commuting crewmember, to be fair, asks “can we fly faster to make up time,” the real question in my mind is “can we afford to gamble by shortening our available fuel duration, and to what purpose and at what cost?” Less holding time available at our destination, maybe requiring a more stressful approach? No way.

scat vomitThe answer to “purpose” would be to shave off 5 to 10 minutes–hardly worth it–at the price of degrading our ability to arrival delays because of an increased fuel burn for speed. The question “can we top this weather rather than circumnavigating the area to save time” brings the opposite answer: maybe, but the more prudent option is to avoid–so we’ll spend the extra time (sorry about your connection–and mine) to do that.

And if you think we as pilots don’t have crucial connections, think again: besides losing pay in a misconnect, there’s more. For many crewmembers, even a ten minute late arrival can mean the difference between getting home or spending a night in a hotel at their own expense and losing a day with family. Sure, I eliminate that worry by not commuting, but crew base positions are determined by seniority–junior pilots and flight attendants can report to work and receive the official notice, “as of next month, you are based a thousand miles from home.”

That all needs to wait outside the cockpit door. Inside, we must focus on the vital flight considerations that trump all distractions.

Again, arrival time–and connections–hang in the balance, but that’s a distant third place behind safety. So yes, I’m not thinking about your connection–and you should be glad. Because that’s exactly what you’ve paid me for, and you deserve no less than the safest, most professional flight, no matter how long that takes.

 Fly the jet firsthand: cvr w white borderThese 25 short essays in the best tradition of JetHead put YOU in the cockpit and at the controls of the jet.

Some you’ve read here, many have yet to appear and the last essay, unpublished and several years in the writing,  I consider to be my best writing effort yet.

Own a piece of JetHead, from Amazon Books and also on Kindle.

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The Big Girl and What You Don’t Know

Posted in air travel, airline, airline pilot blog, airliner, airlines, pilot with tags , , , , , , , , on September 19, 2014 by Chris Manno

She stands tall in the chocks, that DC-10, all shiny polished aluminum gleaming at the leading edges like an Atlas rocket. A grand old bird, a design maybe Mac-Doug rushed into production to compete with what some called the better tri-jet from Lockheed. Not that I gave a damn, first as flight engineer, or Tengineer, as we were called, then as DC-10 copilot.

Because she had what a pilot needed–lots of lift on a fat gull-wing that produced a nice ground effect cushion to make you look good on landing if you treated her right, and tons of smash in those growly hi-bypass fans slung under the wing and mounted in the towering tail. For all her bulk and heft, she’d go like a halfback after the snap.

And in the cockpit, windows so wide next to the pilots’ seats that you’d swear you were going to fall out and drop two stories to the Tarmac on your first pushback. That took some getting used to.

That morning I was flying with Big John, a guy as nervous as you might expect a senior captain to be just months from retirement, not wanting to screw up. He had an enormous belly, hence the nickname, which I’d slap with the control yoke when I pulled it back during the taxi-out flight control check.

You’re supposed to watch the small, square flight control position indicator in the center of the instrument near the Thrust Rating Computer as you put the ailerons and elevator through their paces. But it was more fun, out of the corner of my eye, to watch Big John’s rubbery lips twist into a frown by the second or third time I’d heave back on the yoke till it popped him on the gut.

“Watcha tryin’ to do, boy–loop it?” he’d ask with a wet, wheezy sigh. The flight engineer and I would share a laugh about that over beers later. Conspiratorial, we were, young pilots laughing at the fat old captain.

The big jet rolled like a tank on the ground but once in the air, she climbed steady and strong, shoved smartly by those three big, snarling engines. Once she leveled off and planed out like a speedboat does, her nose dropped and she was a thoroughbred on a quarter mile track, effortlessly sailing along at .84 Mach, mane flying, not even breaking a sweat. And there was the quiet beauty of a morning flight, with everything below bathed in a rising arc light of sunshine as if revealing the new day by degrees of latitude and the majestic solar march along the ecliptic.

In cruise there was nothing to do but put your feet up on the traction-taped bar below the sparsely stocked instrument panel–it was so wide it just seemed empty–and ease that electric seat back a comfortable inch or two more. Then the good flight engineer would produce a small bottle of unreasonably Scoville-blazing hot sauce and make us Virgin Mary’s with the tomato juice in the collection of drinks and snacks and a pot of hot coffee and water the flight attendants had tossed into the cockpit on climbout to keep us pacified.

The Ten design engineers took cabin pressurization a step further than most jets, not only modulating outflow to maintain a habitable pressure despite the membrane-thin atmosphere where we cruised–but also varying the input tapped off of the big engines humming out on the fat wings. So she puffed and wheezed like Big John struggling his girth into the crew van, as the three air cycle machines opened and closed high stage bleeds.

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You might not notice so much in the cabin, but having spent a thousand hours myself manning the DC-10 flight engineer’s panel, even up front I was in tune with her calliope-ish huffing, familiar as a the breathing of spouse of so many years in the middle of the night.
“Not really happy ’bout these winds,” Big John said, shaking his head. “Big damn crosswind.” Which really mattered at LaGarbage, with its fairly short runways.

But the engineer and I couldn’t care; Virgin Mary’s and tonight in Manhattan mattered more: with half the flight attendant crew–the others would find something better to do–we’d walk from the Mildew Plaza to the Westside Temple for crappy Chinese but free wine. All you could drink, though the wine tasted like piss. But it was free and we were airline pilots: free piss is free piss. Big John could pour down a bucket by himself.

“Seems marginal,” Big John muttered, holding the current wind printout. That was the good engineer’s cue to check it out on his tabletop wind chart. We all knew the limits.

“It’s right at it,” the engineer offered. At it ain’t over it, we both decided, but of course Big John had signed for the jet, the damages, plus the FAA and NTSB beating should so much as a ding appear on the silver girl’s skin.

The engineer shrugged a second officer shrug: I told the captain the winds. I did too: I agreed. Glad it’s not my decision.
“Tough call,” Big John said, searching my eyes, I figured, for some hint as to what I’d do if I were him.

And that’s the moment blazed into my mind to this day as I carry his weight. Not his gut, but his pilot-in-command weight, in the twenty-some years I’ve been wearing four stripes. Ain’t no simple, pat answers, just air sense, and the ability to bring others into the decision in a meaningful way.

“We’ll fly the approach as long as we have the fuel increment to divert to JFK on the missed approach with at least fifteen thousand pounds on the deck there. In a standard Korry arrival that leaves about fifteen extra minutes after the full approach so we bingo out at twenty-five regardless. Just request clearance on the missed.”

Then, the golden question. He turned to both of us. “Now, what am I not thinking?”

Not, what do you think of my plan, which is a useless question if you want to know what others think (Your plan? Okay, but I have other ideas) or what you might not know. What am I not thinking?

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“That sounds like a good plan,” I said. It was–and there wasn’t anything in my head that I could share or hold back, especially since he asked. Simple? Might seem so–everywhere but the left seat where the buck stops, where the authority and responsibility irrevocably resides. Big John didn’t need an answer from me–he’d been a captain since I was in grade school. What he needed was what every captain needs: information, ideas, data, and a linked-in crew trained to speak up and comfortable doing so.

Because it’s not what you know–Big John knew plenty–it’s what you don’t know that’ll bust your ass. It’s crucial to ask and by doing so, demonstrate that asking, that searching for what we don’t know to perfect what we do is the way we’re going to think and fly this jet. And speak up about it, dammit, because we’re a team.

We stepped her down through the complex arrival that is the New York Center latticework of airways and approach corridors. I aimed at the two big Maspeth tanks, we were cleared the Expressway visual that’s a box pattern of low-altitude, tight maneuvering (can’t interfere with the JFK pattern) close in and eventually, treetop level. Big John called the left turns for me like a third base coach, having the better view of the SS LaGarbage over his shoulder.

She rolled out squared up, power on against the barn doors of max landing flaps hanging off the trailing edges of the wings. Just a touch of right rudder and she lined up true against the crosswind which less than the limit, or so it felt. The Ten was a stable giant, unlike the squirrely MD-80 I’d also flown as copilot, requiring constant tugging at the leash to get her to heel. When the big gear trucks rolled onto the runway, the ponderous weight settling, it was like she wanted to stop, a great feeling the DC-10 conveyed through your feet on the brakes and the mass weighing her down.

That flight is etched in my memory not only for what Captain Big John showed me, but because of the discovery waiting for me among the half dozen useless messages in my crew inbox after the trip. Sandwiched in the middle was a notice of pending crew status: my captain upgrade class, scheduled for the next month. Just like that, my eyes became Big John’s, needing to know, wanting to make the best decision and from that day forward, accountable.

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No more riding along, offering, but now the “tough decision” no longer belonged to someone else.

“You’re not yourself tonight,” my engineer friend said later at Smitty’s, the last resort Irish bar only a few body-slams across Eight Avenue from the front doors of the Mildew. We’d watched Big John polish off a trough of Kung Pao Chicken at the Westside Temple, washed down with a tankard of free piss. After a Westside night, the last snort at Smitty’s helped wash the bad taste out of your mouth.

“Yeah,” I said after a moment. “Probably never will be again.” At least I hoped not. I wanted to be worthy of that fourth stripe.
He looked at me like he didn’t get it, but that’s okay. He would, eventually, when his day came. Until then, in his shoes, it’d be just one more thing he didn’t know.

Now you can own a piece of JetHead:

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These 25 short essays in the best tradition of JetHead put YOU in the cockpit and at the controls of the jet.

Some you’ve read here, many have yet to appear and the last essay, unpublished and several years in the writing,  I consider to be my best writing effort yet.

Priced at the printing production cost, this collection is not for profit–it’s for YOU to keep.

Own a piece of JetHead, from Amazon Books and also on Kindle.

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Airline Seat Reclining and the Death of Civility.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline passenger, airline pilot blog, airline seat recline with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 2, 2014 by Chris Manno

It’s not about seat reclining. Really, the controversy isn’t the cause–rather, it’s an effect.

Considering the abysmal totality of the airline experience these days, with long lines, limited customer service staffing, “unbundled” product (read: a spectrum of additional fees), security hassles, historically unprecedented high load factors, diminished on-board amenities, airport delays, weather effects, and air traffic control induced flight delays, reclining seats are just the tip of the iceberg.

It’s not really about reclining a seat–it’s about control, maybe one shred of personal authority over an already downsized and minimized bit of enroute space rented at a substantial price.

Because you can’t do a thing about security hassles, or overcrowded airports and air traffic control, about fuel surcharges and overbooking, or add-on pricing. When you get right down to it, in the huge, intransigent, inscrutable and unanswerable juggernaut that is air travel, the only person who has no choice but to listen to you is the passenger within arm’s reach of your seat, upright or reclined.

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But the sad irony of the seat recline squabble is this: the very victims of all of the above factors are turning on each other. And “each other” is simply one victim victimizing another.

The Knee Defender is the catalyst, but not the root cause. Rather, it’s the final straw in a backbreaking load of unpleasantry that has become air travel. We put up with even worse travel hassles in other modes of transport without a protest: filthy cabs, rude drivers, subways packed, buses too, and often unclean and from a crime standpoint, dangerous crowds of travelers.

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But that’s because we don’t spend a week’s wages on the trip, nor do we travel for hours on end with unreliable arrival times and in some cases, changed destinations.

The Knee Defender actually did us all a favor. Rather than having the current “We’re madder than hell and we’re not going to take it any more!” moment erupt over wanting a full can of soda or a seat armrest (or, anyone notice the lavs never get sanitized?), endangering a blameless crewmember (remember, we have zero say in any of the above), the seat recline issue blew up into a national debate about limits.

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That is, the limit of one passenger’s authority over another (the answer: zero, and you’ll deplane in cuffs if you push it) but more importantly, how much shrinkage in the “airline product” can the traveling public withstand?

That, for any airline exec actually looking at this all-important breaking point in both civility and tolerance from the consumer standpoint, is wholly separate from the spreadsheet analysis of revenue and profit margin.

Plain and simple, it ain’t just about the seats and knees, despite the headlines. It’s hearts and minds and human tolerance for complete lack of any power over the last frontier–personal space. We’ve lost all the other fights about price, service, seating, crowding and “security.”

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The airline that finds a way to fill the seats while reversing the trend of shrinking space and diminished personal authority will be the miracle worker that restores both personal dignity and travel value to the skies–and the marketplace.

Until then, industry regulators, law enforcement, crews and passengers can expect more tumult in the already unpleasant skies.

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Fried Sky with a Side of Regret.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Flight of the Pilgrims

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But first, I can share a pilgrim moment myself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Student group boarding the AirTran flight in Atlanta.

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

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

And now they know why.

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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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