Silver Wings, Then Other Things: Part 2.

This is part 2 of a multi-part series putting you in the captain’s seat. Want to start with Part 1? Click here.



Flight plan? Got it. Fuel load? Fine. Take-off data? Got that too. The ten-yard-long printout of notices and info and weather affecting our flight and route? Folded accordian style. Cup of McDonald’s coffee, black? In the cupholder by your right knee.

Something about that: a simple pleasure, that black coffee, plus an opportunity to make a donation to the Ronald McDonald House at the counter every time. I like the idea of doing something good for kids every time I pass by McD’s in the airport.

But also, in “the bubble,” it’s a cool luxury: taxiing out, steering with feet on the rudder pedals, minimal and exact responses to the required challenge-and-response checklist read by the First Officer–and sipping my coffee. The jet feels loaded up; weighty. You can feel the 112 feet of wing out there, the 40 foot tall rudder buffeted by gusts. Definitely an airship lumbering on the ground. Radios and official responses; taxi clearances and I say “okay” as soon as they’re given so my F/O knows I heard and understand.

Other than that and the radio chatter, silence. Because I don’t want anything on the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) except for official, flight-related verbiage. There’s too much that could get screwed up, too much that needs to be checked before take-off to allow a layer of distraction. Plus, it’s the official policy: “sterile cockpit” below 10,000 feet. That is, no non-flight related talk, period. Saves the bubble, the concentration, for important stuff.

Sterile Cockpit.

Because here’s the problem with advanced flight automation: an input error, left undetected, can have disastrous consequences. A keystroke error can lead to faulty flight guidance commands, from the basics of pitch and bank to the routing errors. The only hedge against the hazard is diligent checking of all input. We did the route check at the gate, remember? Now we verify that the data-linked upload and our own inputs are valid: gross weight, center of gravity, fuel weight, take-off and abort speeds, climb speeds, every number associated with performance. That’s as we’re rolling, and as I’m ensuring we don’t violate anyone’s taxiway or runway space, steering with my feet–sipping my coffee, of course.

Ready for your eye test? "Give way to an RJ on Charlie, then taxi east on Bravo, short of Charlie 3."

Several numbers you must see, every time, before take-off–it’s not enough to have the First Officer read them aloud (“We planned 155,000 pounds, we’re actually 156,500 pounds . . .”). I will physically view the data-linked final weight numbers, I’ve already written the planned weight on my side panel clipboard as a reference, and I HAVE to see the correct number on the Control Display Unit screen. And at the same time, not taxi into the dirt or worse, any other jet. Not so easy at night.

But no worries–if it gets too hectic, timeout: “Let’s hold on the checklist here till we’re stopped.” Ever wonder why there’s a delay before take-off? While other jets are coming and going? Often, this is why. After leaving the gate, I’m completely detached from schedule constraints–we’ll get airborne as soon as all checks are thoroughly and correctly performed. As I tell F/Os when the tendency to rush starts to rear its ugly head, “We don’t get paid to rush. And if anything goes wrong as a result of rushing, no one’s going to be there to bail your ass out.”

Here’s where I like the silence, the bubble: no extraneous concerns beyond this flight. A departure path clear of weather and traffic. Verified speeds and weights in the flight guidance system, so the pitch and bank commands will be valid. But if they’re not, a mental review of what I know are the limits: greater than nine degrees of pitch up will drag the tail on the runway. Doesn’t matter what the flight guidance commands, my hands will not exceed a limit.

Waiting. Quick mental review of high-speed abort items: fire, failure, fear or shear. That is, after 80 knots, only an engine fire or failure, or my split-second judgment that I “fear” the aircraft is structurally not airworthy, or a detected windshear will cause me to abort the take-off before max abort speed, and after that–we’re flying with whatever we have.

I have options a hundred miles down the road, but also for liftoff: best single-engine climb angle, if we need it; left downwind to land south if we do. McChord 20 miles south with lots of runway. Fire and failure litanies. Mt. Ranier, all 14,410 feet of her, and where she is at all times.

Got it? 165 others are assuming that you do–so you’d better.

“American 116, line up and wait.” The tower’s direction. Real quiet now. Last minute runway checklist items. Ease in the power–there may be smaller jets behind us. Swing wide, line up on the center stripe; hold the brakes. Fire, failure, fear or shear. Minimum safe altitude. Engine failure profile. Initial level off altitude. No other thoughts. And no worries–this is gonna be fun.

Departure path is clear. “American 1116, cleared for take-off, runway one-six, wind one-five-zero at ten.”

“Rolling on one-six, American 1116.” All exterior lights on.  Another swig of java–we’ll get back to it on climb out–stand the throttles up; gages spring forward, then toggle take-off power on the autothrottles, hack the elapsed time button on the chronometer.

Both engines growl to take-off power–love that feel as they bite the air, compress it, mix in jet fuel and burn it, shoving us forward. Fifteen hundred miles to DFW–let’s get airborne.

Next Post: Part 3, enroute, and the landing.



12 Responses to “Silver Wings, Then Other Things: Part 2.”

  1. Dr. Asoka Dissanayake Says:

    Thank you.

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Airplane News, Chris Manno. Chris Manno said: Silver Wings, Then Other Things: Part 2. […]

  3. A dopey question if I may: In the takeoff video, what the heck are the Rube Goldbergesque spinning wheels on either side of the throttle quadrant ?
    Trim perhaps ?

    As usual, an enjoyable & informative post- Thanks!

    • Those are a wheel connected to the stabilizer trim. They’re so as a last result, with an electric failure you can still manually trim the stabilizer–that’s the winglike tail plane that the elevator control pivots on–by cranking that wheel (there’s a pop-out handle if you need it). It spins whenever the electric trim is used by the pilots (actuated by a thumb switch on the control column) or the autopilot. Aircraft like the Douglas series don’t have the manual wheel–if you lose the electric motors or electrical power, you can’t retrim the stabilizer and you’re stuck with whatever setting it had last. Makes pitch control a bear, especially slow speed and in landing configuration. Boeing has always thought of everything, including pitch trim despite electrical failure.

  4. Oh man! Talk about a cliff hanger.

    Chris, this is great stuff. Thank you for the series. Can’t wait for the next

    And those little videos are great. What are those spinning wheels by the side of the center console? Looks like nasty little things just waiting to grab a finger.


  5. Great post today. enjoying the series. Thanks much.

  6. Cedarglen Says:

    Thanks Chris, a great follow on post. I’m sitting with you in those moments of terror between V1 and VR. A question about flight plan and performance data: Is the basic flight plan automagically downloaded from operations/dispoatch to your airplane, or do flight crew have to enter all data points by hand? I agree… getting those numbers right is VERY important. And, with only a small I LIKE the idea that ‘Let’s hold here (or once stopped) until the numbers look good…’ or whatever you said. I’m guessing, but it sound like if the loading door gets closed on time, the crew os off the hook for any delays. If necessary, you can park and even shut down some engines and *&^$ing wait until you like the numbers. Am I close? Next question: Last I heard, the landing gear struts do not have build in scales. 1: Why not? 2: Other than using statistical averages, how the heck do you achieve true weights? There must be a big fudge factor included. Can you explain a bit more? They gate agents have not weighed individual pax – and their carry-ons – for many years. Does the checked bagage actually get weighted, perhaps in gross or per cart, before it is loaded? “Average weights” will scare me a bit, until you explain how the weights that you operate with are calculated. I know that that acttual weight when you begin the TO roll is extremely important, especially when density altitude is a factor. How the heck to you get real numbers? Thanks again for a great post. Let’s see if we can cut the intereval between posts. Maybe? Thanks, Chris.

    • I don’t think of them as “moments of terror,” just intense concentration. The flight plan and the performance data is uplinked to the jet via data link, both on the ground and in flight. But it’s important to validate every navigation point and sequence. Ditto the performance data: I need to see and verify all weights, power settings and temperatures.

      As for the struts: a built-in scale would be just one more thing to break or operate inaccurately. They do weigh the jets empty periodically but regardless, the AOA gage (Angle Of Attack) doesn’t lie and is never inaccurate. That’s the gold standard, if one pays attention to it. On the 737-800, it’s incorporated into the heads-up display as well as the primary flight displays before both pilots.

  7. blackwatertown Says:

    Enjoying this series.
    Thanks again.

  8. “We don’t get paid to rush.”

    One of the most comforting lines, ever. 🙂

    Captain, this was a really great post…like the others, I love this series.

    More please, and thank you.

  9. […] February 15, 2011 by naufragiobella Leave a Comment This is part 2 of a multi-part series putting you in the captain’s seat. Want to start with Part 1? Click here. . . Flight plan? Got it. Fuel load? Fine. Take-off data? Got that too. The ten-yard-long printout of notices and info and weather affecting our flight and route? Folded accordian style. Cup of McDonald’s coffee, black? In the cupholder by your right knee. Something about that: a simple pleasure, that black coffee, plus an opportunity to … Read More […]

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