Just Fly The Pieces.


Windshear ain’t all bad. Why?

Well, if  “windshear advisories” are being broadcast for the take-off runway, you get to use the full mojo on both engines.

No de-rate allowed, so you get The Full Monty on both engines which is like super kick-in-the-pants giddyup on take-off, especially if you’re light.

So normally I’m rolling down the runway chanting to myself, “Engines, engines, engines . . .” as a way to keep my focus not only on the centerline, but after 80 knots, to screen out any of the dozens of aural and visual warnings and annunciations that could try to induce me to abort–which we ain’t doing above 80 knots. Why?

Because I’m a pilot: I’d rather fly with a sick airplane–even on one engine–rather than try to stay on the 80-ton bronco, stopping it with whatever’s left after something malfunctioned. So I screen out electrical, hydraulic, pneumatic, navigation, flight guidance annunciations and look for engines engines engines; if they’re turning and burning, we’re flying and we’ll worry about the other stuff in the air.

And in a highspeed abort, especially if there’s a ground evacuation afterward–somebody’s going to get hurt.

“Just fly the goddam pieces,” crusty old Major Jerry McClennan used to bark, instead of the typically laborious over-fried briefing done before an Air Force gaggle of jets and rendezvouses and painstaking square-filling beforehand.

Jerry, engine fire?

A wave of his bony hand, always holding a cigarette which is why he usually smelled like a smoldering dump fire, even unlit. “Bah! Just let it burn off,” he’d growl. “Who the hell cares?”

That’s the original “fly the pieces” mentality, which I first heard from ol’ Jer so many years ago. And he’s right.

Because life is that way: you get what you get and you don’t throw a fit, as my fifth grader reminds me now and again when I’m cursing the laptop for being balky at a task which she can and will easily smooth out with a few deft clicks.

So it is with jets, flights, and flight crews.

And as any pilot who endured an emergency simulator with the legendary American Airlines instructor Dutch Schultz (long retired and passed away) will recall as he threw multiple and complex aircraft emergencies at you relentlessly, how he’d smile and say softly, “Well, it’s an imperfect world, isn’t it?

That it is. And I can’t even muster much disappointment when things go wrong, as they often will, not only expecting the worst, but also figuring the bigger pieces on fire will just burn off anyway. Look out below–we actually had a 727 years ago where one of the engines literally fell off.

Among the other bells and lights distracting the cockpit crew was the cabin interphone call chime.

Flight Attendant: we just lost an engine.

Pilot: yeah, we know. Thanks for distracting me from the obvious with the obvious.

Flight Attendant: no, I mean it’s gone.

This is where Jerry would say, “Well who the hell cares–we’ve got more, don’t we?” And don’t call up here any more–we’re busy.

I was in awe of him as a lieutenant: the guy’s a wildman! He flies around with his hair on fire, doesn’t give a damn.

That’s where, I find out 15,000 pilot hours later, I was dead wrong.

Jerry gave a damn–and he was passing along the secret in the pilot world that also translates into life as well. That is, the question in a critical situation isn’t “what’s going to happen?” Well, you can ask that, but the real question you need to know that will determine what you do is “what’s the worst that can happen?”

Then just back it off a notch and fly right. It gets easier from there, once you decide where the edge of the world is, and you’ll find in any emergency there’s at least some room between you and that fall-off-the-edge point.

I tried, really I did, to muster something other than strict adherence to standard responses the day Mexico City approach vectored us into a mountain at night in a thunderstorm. Really I did–but nothing, no panic, no fear; nada.

The Flight Data Recorder printout (I still have it) shows within two second of the alert, I had the wings level and the power to the firewall, two seconds after that the nose was at 20 degrees and climbing, the radio altimeter unwinding like the Dow. We were losing, the mountain was winning. Couldn’t see a thing because of the thunderstorm enveloping us anyway–which was a good thing: turbulence had exceeded the autopilot’s limits and it had quit earlier.

The extra seconds to disconnect the autopilot might have eaten the few feet we had to spare–you could clearly hear the automated radio altimeter warning “500 feet” even though we were above 9,000 feet in altitude–when we cleared the mountain. Like windshear on take-off, no worries, deal with it and there is an upside to everything anyway.

Throughout, all I could muster was intense concentration–is there one more ounce of lift or thrust I’m overlooking?–the whole time. Well that, plus a smidge of resentment at having been vectored into the mountain, but it’s an imperfect world, isn’t it?

Rocks everywhere!

Fly the pieces, is what I told the pilot sent down to Mexico City to babysit the double engine change required after the firewall escape maneuver we’d done quietly, intently and successfully.

Seen the edge a few times since, and in a career aloft that includes skydiving and acro flying, many times before: shrug. Because Jerry was right–what choice do you really have? Concentration, thinking above feeling and in the end, just fly the pieces. You’ll know soon enough how it all turns out, right?

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16 Responses to “Just Fly The Pieces.”

  1. Chris. Your rehash of the Mexico scenario made my skin crawl! Precariously flirting with cumulonimbus and “cumulus granite” at night at an airport with ATC English as a second language. No thanks!

    Those parameters entered my thought process when I flew to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico a couple of months ago during daylight. It was my first time there and thought I sure wouldn’t want to be dodging “thunder bumpers” at night with steep rising mountainous terrain surrounding the airport. On that note I’m off to Mexico City in a few days…the first time in 12 years. Great job in recounting your Mexican “get out of Dodge” scenario. 🙂

    Captain D

    • Doug– Mine too. That was before EFIS was mandatory in mountainous terrain. With a non-EFIS EGPWS on the radar, you had to switch back and forth between rocks and storms, losing a sweep of both in the transition. Coming from the north, they sequence you to SMO to intercept the 160 outbound. But at night and in the weather, jets were deviating everywhere. I was handflying and punching the button to monitor the terrain and avoid the cells. As usual, they gave us direct SMO to intercept the 160 outbound at 9,500–but also as usual, they did it with over a 100 degree intercept. The Stupid-80 even WITH EFIS can’t do it (the waypoint vanishes) so rather than wag it, I told the F/O told tell him “unable,” as I’d rather he vectored us while I avoided the thunderstorms. Bad idea; got the GPWS “Pull Up-Terrain,” immediately looked at the altimeter and it’s saying over 9,000 feet–but the radio altimeter is alive. 10K over MEX is safe–that’s where we went. ATC giving us vectors and altitudes; “Nope, we’ll be over the VOR at 10,000 if you need us.” Eventually made an approach from the south, which has even a tighter turn inbound. Groundspeed is key–slow and dirty, leading the FAF at that high TAS. And be heads up for that >110 degree intercept they’ll try to dump on you! That, and a sidestep from the right to the left under 1,000 AGL is pretty standard. Slick, uncrowned and ungrooved runway. Stopping is a neat trick even when it’s dry–they haven’t cleaned the reverted rubber off since the last time you were there. Good luck! –Chris

  2. Hi Chris, I’m curious. Can you elaborate “power to the firewall”, if that’s more than go-around power and why the engines had to be replaced?
    The airplane lets you exceed engine limits?
    Regards, Valter

    • Yes, the MD-80 has the old JT8D-290 engines with a hydromechanical fuel control: it’ll give you whatever power you ask for. The standard terrain escape maneuver called for full throttle–all the way to the stops. That results in around 105-6% N1; the limit is somewhere around 102-3% (I don’t remember as I don’t fly that jet anymore). By contrast, the 737-800 EICAS is solid state–won’t let you overboost the engines.

  3. Another fantastic read, Captain Manno.

    “Fly the pieces.” I love that sentence…the story of my life sometimes. 🙂

    Keep the posts coming…(you’re not THAT busy, are you?)

  4. Oh wow. Once again you stun me with your pictures. Breathtaking!!!

    I do like the phrase “fly to peices”… makes ones imagination run!

  5. Chris,
    Thanks for sharing the term, “Just fly the pieces.” What a beautiful way to conceptualize the ability to keep the little emergencies from derailing your ultimate goal. We do that in my job all the time, too. This morning while removing a cancer, I nicked an artery, sending a red fountain into my face. No screams or jumping back, just clamping off the offending vessel and moving on to the task at hand. I think “Flying the pieces” is a poetic way to say “Professionalism.”

    • Thanks Stephen. Did your receptionist mention I left my car in your office lot? On my way to DFW, had to drive the pieces–radial disintegrated; ‘preciate the parking space till the tow truck got there!

      • She did tell me about your car. I noticed that it was already gone by the time I left work; otherwise, I would have called your better half to see if she wanted me to put it in the garage overnight for safekeeping. I’m glad you’ve got it under control.

      • Actually Darling Bride had the privilege of hauling my fat ass out to DFW at that time. I’m kind of hoping she’ll be there to pick me up tomorrow night but after the rush hour thing yesterday, I may have to walk home.

  6. I have a question is the #2 pic KABQ ABQ just woundering as I fly out of that airport alot and looks like it may be

    • Yes–ABQ runway 3.

      • tusphotog Says:

        When in ABQ, you must get the green chile chicken soup from Comida Buena. It’s delicious. They also have damn good cinnamon rolls in the morning (heated up for free!). Not sure if you get through there on the Pig, but it’s worth noting.

        Love the blog.

  7. Chris,

    I’m not sure how I came across this blog but it’s awesome. I’m hooked!! Please keep up the posts. I need something to do when I’m pretending to work.

    -Paul

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