Captains-Eye View: All Things Considered.


You climb into the left seat, sit down; the schedule is set, the route loaded, the jet fueled, crew in place, passengers boarded–ready for pushback. What could be simpler?

If only things were as simple as they look.

Today you’re headed to John Wayne-Orange County Airport. The runway is the shortest in the nation that we operate in and out of. The airspace surrounding the airport is in the heart of Los Angeles Center, some of the busiest airspace in the country.

Certainly, the operation is within normal limits, but make no mistake about it: everything is compressed in terms of time, options and reactions when the landing runway is that short. As a rule, we use as a standard touchdown zone of 1,500-3,000 feet but no more than 30% of the runway length, which gives you plenty of slack at DFW where the runway is 13,000 feet long. But Orange County is 5,700 total–one third gives you 1,700 feet to have the wheels on the deck, or abandon the landing. That’s in deference to stopping ability, which is critical on such a short runway.

From the left seat, there are a few more options that make the task easier.

The Heads Up Display (HUD) gives me aimpoint and airspeed information, plus dynamic considerations such as acceleration, deceleration, flare cue and throttle commands, all without ever taking my eyes off the touchdown target . Then, on touchdown, right below the speed readout the runway remaining distance is displayed, keeping me appraised of our deceleration.

But the HUD is only on the captain’s side and I know of more than one captain who won’t let First Officers land at Orange County for that reason–plus the compressed timeline and limited options there.

Fair enough. But I consider a few more factors.

Everyone I fly with has been an airline pilot for at least twenty years, because we haven’t hired anyone since the 90s. They know what they’re doing and even though it would be easier for me to just do the landing myself, I keep this in mind: if at any point on the approach I feel like it’s not going the way I think it should, I can and will direct a go-around, meaning we will abandon the approach and execute the missed approach procedure. Worst case, I’ll simply say, “I have the aircraft” and take control and fly the maneuver myself.

Okay, I don’t tell First Officers, but I’ll likely have Dispatch add an extra thousand pounds of fuel to our standard upload, just for that purpose: I want the extra pad of minutes in my pocket as we fly the approach, just in case we need to do the go-around.

From there, the approach will be for me a series of gates we must meet: airspeed, configuration, descent rate and path  must stay within strict limits (the HUD tells me everything at a glance) or we abandon the approach. That’s my call and I’m not shy about making it, have been making that call as captain for 21 years now.

For a passenger jet, this is a postage stamp of a runway. Particularly for the 737-800, which has higher than normal approach and touchdown speeds. In the back of my mind on every touchdown is the time compression induced by the short runway: we must touchdown on speed, on point, braking and reverse thrust promptly and fully. There’s really little chance of doing anything (like a rejected landing) after touchdown on a runway that short.

Take-off is no easier. Yesterday, it was the First officer’s turn to do the take-off, and he wasn’t happy with the performance data generated by the bank of computers buried in a bunker in Tulsa. They’d determined that due to the shortness of the runway, combined with the July heat and the heavy fuel load required by weather in west Texas (actually, required by ME but I didn’t tell the First Officer that), we’d need to use a setting of 25 degrees of flaps for take-off.

We normally use 1, or maybe 5 degrees.  My First Officer doesn’t like it, says it’s senseless to have that much drag hanging out there especially on a short runway with a steep climb gradient–if you lose an engine on take-off, that’s a ton of drag with the nose pointed high.

Each CFM-56 engine puts out 27,000 pounds of thrust at full power

Each CFM-56 engine puts out 27,000 pounds of thrust at full power.

Yet it’s not only legal, it’s recommended by the performance “experts” and being the captain, this is my call, of course.

But not so fast: he has a good point. Yes, it’s always my call–but it’s his take-off and while I’ll always maintain veto power, as I said, these F/Os are very experienced and he has a really good point. It’s the same thing I do whenever we’re handling a systems failure or an emergency: I don’t ask “what do you think of my plan,” but rather, “tell me what I’m overlooking, what I’m not thinking.”

Which is what he did.

So right there in the cockpit, I input “15 degrees” of flaps, plus the temperature and take 2 knots of headwind I know is there and the on-board performance computer data-linked with Tulsa says we will have a two-thousand pound pad if we want to use 15 degrees of flaps instead of 25. Why not?
The difference is in the power setting–but that’s miniscule. The computer performance program looks to minimize engine temperature and thus extend engine life. Somehow, when you’re staring at the end of a 5,700 foot runway with 167 souls on board depending on you, the difference between 101.2% and 101.9% power and the associated hot section temps seem acceptable.

And there’s another quirk I’ve developed over a couple of decades as captain: many guys insist on making such critical take-off themselves, but I’m exactly the opposite.

On short runways particularly, like  Santa Ana, DCA or LaGuardia, I prefer the reverse. That is, the First Officer is the “go” guy, executing the take-off unless I say otherwise–which would be, as standard, me taking the aircraft from him and aborting.

That leaves me as the “stop guy,” monitoring everything carefully with an eye towards any anomaly–something not as easy to do if I’m executing the take-off myself.

If I see no reason to stop, my well-seasoned expert in the right seat is going to go. Makes more sense to me: on shorter runways, this simply becomes more compressed, but no different than the thought process on any runway, long or short. I try to use all of the assets available to make the best decision for all.

There’s a lot written in stone, sure, but in the flying biz, there’s just as much art and science. And while the fourth stripe gives you all the authority, it would be foolish to think it also gives you all the answers. All things considered, a cohesive cockpit crew will handle everything as it comes. That’s kind of what being a captain is all about.

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11 Responses to “Captains-Eye View: All Things Considered.”

  1. Hey Chris: Fascinating! I love the logic of it all – figuring out worst case scenarios, implications of a series of decisions – what if this, what if that. I’m hyper-organized and, while I don’t pilot planes, I often have responsibility for pretty high risk, high profile projects (such as 5 million dollar research grants) – I go through a parallel process of thinking through decisions and scenarios. Thing is, nobody gets hurt if I make a mistake. Glad to learn the thought process of seasoned pilots, gives me even more faith in your profession!

    As I understand it, our commercial airlines have had an incredible safety run over the last decade or two – I wonder if some of that is due to not hiring – as horrendous as that is (and I know pilots have lost income and benefits to a terrible degree), I wonder if having only really seasoned folks flying at least for the majors (and all the engineering, safety systems, learning from mistakes etc) hasn’t contributed to that excellent safety record. Kathy

  2. UberMitch Says:

    So I’ve definitely picked up on your “I love more fuel so I get more go-arounds in case I need them” theme through your posts here, but it’s raising a question on my mind. With a standard fuel load, how many go-arounds do these planes normally have in them? Like if I get caught in a Die Hard 2-type scenario (I know, I know, why didn’t they just land at BWI or DCA) how long would we actually have for Detective McClane to save the day?

  3. Everyone talks about how difficult these runways are. Dealing with them is a lot more complicated than most of us realize. Thanks for taking us along

  4. Fr. Jeremiah Says:

    Another insightful post! I love landing at LGA! Always wonder if I should have worn my bathing suit, we get so close to Flushing Bay! 😉

    It seems as though you are a fantastic leader. You maintain a comprehensive vision, assess the assets available to you, empower those working with you; all the while understanding and appropriating the reality that, at the end of the day, the buck stops with you. Excellent! If you don’t mind, I might use this post as one of my examples of exemplary leadership in our courses here at the seminary on leadership and management styles!

    Stay cool and fly safe!

  5. As someone who is aiming to become an airline pilot himself, I truly appreciate the high-quality, insightful content that you provide us with. Please keep it coming!

  6. capnaux Says:

    Great comments about SNA! One of my fav’ destinations, for the challenge. I agree with your philosophy of letting the more-than-capable FO do the flying while you manage! I love BUR also for the same reason. Firm plant on the TDZ, max reverse, medium autobrakes, pull off the runway to the right–and 10 more yards to your gate!

    Just don’t forget to add to your passenger briefing what I always say before takeoff: “Keep your hands and feet inside the car at all times, trust us we’re trained professionals, don’t try this at home!”

    • Actually, I don’t say anything to the passengers about it: they pay for “routine,” they want routine, so that’s more my priority. Plus, the silent, fearful fliers–and they’re on board–need “routine”rather than thrilling and as always, “humorous,” is an iffy proposition among 160 individuals in back, never mind the flight attendants silently thinking, “goofy pilot.”

      I personally do like the challenge of doing a short field in and out successfully and professionally, but in my view, that’s more about me–and the flight isn’t about me. It’s about those folks who paid, and they want routine.

      That’s the real satisfaction for me anyway: done well, done right, done quietly. I’d rather stay below the public radar.

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