Archive for the aircraft maintenance Category

Airliners vs. Drones: Calm Down.

Posted in air travel, air travel humor, aircraft maintenance, airline, airline cartoon, airline cartoon book, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airline safety, airliner with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 8, 2015 by Chris Manno


Much ado has been produced by the media about the hazards of drones flying in proximity to airliners, but I’m happy to report: it’s much ado about nothing.

The hazard presented by unwanted objects in an aircraft’s flight path is nothing new. In fact, each year hundreds of bird strikes are dutifully and without fanfare reported by airline pilots as is required by law.


What’s new is the opportunity for media and aviation “pundits” to claim more screaming headlines by overstating the drone hazard. First, consider the typical, average weight of the plentiful waterfowl populating the bird sanctuaries neighboring JFK, LGA, ORD, DFW, SEA, PDX, LAX, SAN, DCA, SFO, BOS and most Florida airports to name but a few. The weight varies from the 10-13 pound goose to the heavier seabirds like pelican which can weigh up to 30 pounds.

Although the the media and some wannabe aviation pundits claim there are “drones of 50-60 pounds,” the fact is, the new, popular hobbyist drones are marvels of lightweight miniaturization, weighing a fraction of that.


Now, consider the exposure: while the new hobbyist drones begin to enjoy an increasing level of retail sales, the bird hazard numbers literally in the millions. By sheer numbers alone, bird conflicts and even bird strikes dwarf the number of drone “sightings” by airliners, but they’re simply no longer news.

Plainly stated, the traveling public–and thus the media–understand the exposure, accept it, and like the National Highway Traffic Safety traffic death toll, ignore it.

Trundle out the “new menace” of drones and heads turn, headlines accrue, news ratings uptick, and those who know little about jetliners begin to smell fear.

So let’s even go beyond the hazard and foresee and actual impact with a drone. I once flew from Pittsburgh to DFW with duck guts splattered all over my cockpit windscreen after hitting what maintenance technicians estimated to be a ten pound duck. There were two primary consequences I had to deal with.

What are the chances of encountering a drone? A duck?

What are the chances of encountering a drone? A duck?

First, I had to look through duck guts for two and a half hours. They partially slid off, but most froze onto the window at altitude and stayed. Second, the crew meal enroute was less appetizing with the backdrop of frozen duck guts. That’s it.

None of the birds went into either engine. No aircraft systems were affected. Nobody (besides Pittsburgh tower) knew until after landing when we filed the required reports.

This is a pretty good predictor of what might happen if the rare, statistically minute chance of a drone-aircraft collision were to occur: likely, nada.


Yes, there always the potential for engine damage when a “bird,” man made or real, is ingested by an engine. Nonetheless, of all the birds–man made or real–populating the skies around every major airport, drones are a minuscule fraction of the whole group that air travelers sensibly overlook day to day.

So why not focus on that reality rather than the shrieking media and aviation “experts” offering unlikely and often, absurd “what ifs?”


The answer is, the latter sells news, while the former undercuts the self-appointed aviation experts in and out of the media.

So the choice is yours. You can embrace the misguided drone hysteria served up by the news and “experts,” or apply the same logic you do to every daily hazard–including the drive to the airport (over 32,000 traffic deaths in 2014)–which is: drive carefully, and don’t sweat the small stuff.

Anything else is much ado about nothing.






Airline Insider: Bob Crandall on the Airline Industry.

Posted in air travel, aircraft maintenance, airline industry, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, passenger with tags , on March 30, 2013 by Chris Manno

Robert Crandall is the former CEO of AMR and President of  American Airlines. He is largely credited with post-deregulation airline innovations such as frequent flyer programs and the hub and spoke system which to this day remain the blueprint for the modern airline industry.

Mr. Crandall gives very straightforward answers to my questions regarding airline deregulation, government and state department failures, foreign investment in US airlines, airline alliances, off-shore aircraft maintenance and more. Listen to this thirty minute interview by clicking on the link below.

Or, to download, click here.

This interview and all JetHead Live episodes are available on the “Jethead Live: Archives” tab in the right column, as well as on iTunes (click on the logo below).


After the storm: fly home–but not so fast.

Posted in air travel, aircraft maintenance, airline delays, airliner, airlines, airport, flight, flight crew, jet, jet flight, night, pilot, weather, wind shear with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 26, 2011 by Chris Manno

After the divert to Wichita Falls, time to gas and go: Flight Dispatch says DFW is accepting arrivals. That’s all we needed to hear–we’re refueled and refiled with Air Traffic Control. As soon as we’re released by tower, we’re in the black night and headed south to DFW at 280 knots.

Would be flying faster, but 280 is the best turbulence penetration speed and though the ride’s not overly bumpy, the latticework of cloud to cloud lightning straight ahead promises roughness. We’re making a beeline for one of the four arrival corner posts for DFW at 10,000 feet.

Things will happen fast on a 70 mile flight, and the First Officer is flying: he’s sharp, and that allows you as captain to oversee all of the preparation, the checklists, the navigation and most importantly, the radar. Approaching midnight, we’re now 12 hours into our pilot duty day, but regardless, there is still the same roster of tasks to be accomplished–and they don’t care how tired you are, they must be accomplished correctly.

Getting a good look at the current radar sweep and things look ugly. The cells have broken up and are scattered like mercury all over the place. The DFW airport arrival information is automated: weather, winds, runway–all printed out from the on-board data link printer. The DFW info says landing south–so you set up frequencies, courses and descent altitudes in both sides of the Flight Management System, as well as both pilot panels. While he flies, you brief the approach.

Have to swing wide around storms–request a descent to get below scud blow-off you can’t see on radar, but which you detect because it’s blocking the pattern of ground lights you know should be Denton. As soon as we begin descent, the master caution light glares in front of your face, along with a pressurization clue. A quick glance at the pressurization control panel above the F/Os head shows we’re holding cabin pressure fine, it’s just that we never reached the programmed cruise altitude and the computer is confused.

“Off schedule descent,” you say, punching off the warning light. Reset the cruise altitude to 5,000, which is lower than where you are, to let the computer recalculate and catch up.

“Radar vectors to 35 Center,” says the air traffic controller. Dammit–we set everything up for a south landing per the DFW info.

“ATIS says DFW landing south,” you say, making sure there’s absolutely none of the annoyance you feel in your voice.

Pause, wherein you can imagine the controller saying to someone the ATIS is wrong. “I’ll check on that, but plan north.

Redo the courses, rebrief for the F/O, reinsert the proper approach in the FMS and extend the centerline for intercept. Complete the checklist down to configuration, validate the Heads Up Display Data. Staring at the lights of The Ballpark in Arlington miles south, doing the math on descent rates versus final turn altitude based on a left turn thereabouts. Looking good.

A loud snap as the autothrottles kick off. “I’ve got them back on,” you say, reaching up to reinstate the system. F/O nods, concentrating on flying.

Now ask yourself why they tripped off. No failures annunciated–they wouldn’t have reinstated with an internal failure. And it’s not that choppy. Has to have been a power interruption. Glance up–sure enough, there it is.

The left generator bus source is gone. Is it the generator or the bus that’s failed? Regardless, we’re flying with only one electrical source–the right generator. Not good.

First instinct is to start the Auxiliary Power Unit (APU), a small jet engine in the tail that can provide electrical power and pressurization air–but wait.

If the fault is in the left electrical bus, adding the APU generator could either cause a fire, or take down the APU generator. Be patient.

Although you know the right generator has assumed the power load–so the bus must be okay–why take chances?

“We’ve lost the left generator,” you say, reaching for the Quick Response Handbook. “I’ll take care of it. “F/O nods.

The procedure confirms what you deduced. Within a couple minutes, you have the APU running and power restored. Follow the QRH procedure exactly; better to have two electrical sources–if you’re down to one, if it fails, it’s going to get dark and ugly: flying with limited instruments and systems on 30 minutes of battery back up. In the weather, at night. We can do it–but would rather not.

Left base turn from an angling downwind. Mike’s doing a good job–he sees the bad angle and is slowing and calls for dirtying up with flaps and gear. The runway’s coming into view on my side. Good altitude and speed; the intercept of glideslope and course will be fine.

Tower calls the winds “130 at 18.”

Dammit. The limit is 15. With the 50 degree offset, we’re close. Legal, but you don’t like flirting with limits. Even on a long runway.

“Continue,” you say to Mike’s inquiring look–he’s done the math too. But you’re just about decided to abandon the approach. But no need to rush anything. Rushing is never good.

“I’ll rebug you to 40” you say, changing configuration as required by the tailwind, “and brakes 3.” He nods.

At a thousand feet, it’s clear that the tailwind is unstable and variable–you can tell from our ground speed versus the airspeed.

No good. “Let ‘s take it around,” you say. He nods, adds power–the descent stops.

“Here comes flaps 15,” you recite the litany for him,”positive rate, gear coming up. Missed approach altitude set.”

“American 245 is on the go,” you tell the tower.

“Fly runway heading, maintain two thousand,” says the tower.

Fine; nearly there–reset the throttles from N1 to speed, reset both FMC from climb to capture. Reset both course windows and MDA–because we’re going to land south. Reprogram the FMS for the 17s.

“I’m going to teardrop you out to the east, then bring you around for a final to the south,” says the controller. “Can you do that?”

Eyeballing the radar: nastiness to the northeast, but there’s some room.

“Give us five miles,” you answer. No need to rush–make this correct, hit every step. F/O nods. “Then turn us back in.”

Slowing, getting dirty. Left sweeping turn.

“Do you see the runway?” asks tower. You do–you give a thumbs up to Mike. He nods.

“Affirmative,” you answer.

“Cleared visual approach, cleared to land, 17 Right.”

Confirm the Right runway freqs, MDA and courses set. “I’ll bug you back up to 30,” you say, changing configuration again: don’t need a whole lot of drag without the tailwind and with a possible wind shear. Mike nods.

Glideslope is rough. You’re on a hair trigger to go around again–there’s plenty of fuel to hold or go north to Oklahoma City or south to Austin. Be alert, be patient.

Increasing wind; good sign–but it has to stay within controllable limits. Mike’s doing a fine job wrestling the jet onto glidepath. The Boeing is a steady machine–an MD80 would be a bucking bronco in this.

Below 500 feet–you’re call: it’s stable enough, we’re good. If Mike wants to go-around, we sure will, but we’re good.

Over the threshhold, Mike puts it down; speedbrakes deploy, he yanks in full reverse, the jet slows.

“Nice job,” you say, taking over as we slow to 80 knots.

After landing checklists, taxi in. Careful, do the job right all the way to the chocks. Engine shutdown.

Passengers deplaning, our shutdown checklists complete. You’re writing up the left generator in the maintenance logbook, a mechanic is already on the jetbridge waiting.

“You can take off, Mike,” you say, “I’ll finish up here.” Meaning you’ll do the final “after all passengers have deplaned” checklist items to power down the aircraft. That’s a courtesy you do–you’re the captain, you leave last. He did a great job tonight–respect that.

We fist bump, he leaves.

You finish up: packs off, recirc fans off, cockpit power off. Grab your bags. Slip out of the gate area past the 160 passengers who have no idea what transpired between Wichita Falls and their safe landing a few minutes ago. Nor should they–that’s what they pay you for.

Fresh air feels good, outside waiting for the employee bus to the parking lot. Nearly 1am, got to get home and get some rest–flying again tomorrow.


One Pilot’s Perspective: 737 vs. MD80

Posted in air travel, aircraft maintenance, airliner, airlines, flight, flight crew, jet, pilot with tags , , , , , on December 11, 2010 by Chris Manno

Well I have to confess, I’ve been a little “out of touch.”

Since the early 90’s, I’ve been flying the MD80, assuming as I did that as airliners went, the jet was comparable to other commercial airliners.

What a wake-up call.

In the past twenty years, technology has marched on in all manufacturing and the airline biz is no exception. Sure, there have been several add-on systems that have helped the MD80 struggle along in today’s airline environment. But that’s pretty much the macro and micro view of the problem with the MD80: rather than redesign, MacDonnell-Douglas just added a few things to an already aging airframe.

By contrast, Boeing has kept pace with new capabilities by redesigning and refining what’s worked well. When they enlarged the 737 to the present -800 model I fly, they added more wing and more power with the newest CFM-56 engines with 27,000 pounds of thrust each. Douglas stretched the DC-9 by adding fuselage plugs before and after the same old wing.  And the engines are the same Pratt & Whitney JT8Ds they hung on the first ones in 1981.

It’s the difference between “add on” and “redesign” and the results of these two philosophies couldn’t be more apparent to the hands-on pilot. So let’s start with that perspective, taking a look at each from a pilot’s standpoint.

Here’s the captain’s seat of the MD80 where my butt has been for at least 12,000 flight hours. At first glance, it doesn’t look like much but I learned to make it home: everything you need is within reasonable reach and locations and function make decent sense. There’s elbow room, plus room to stow stuff at your fingertips. That’s important.

But the downside? Outside visibility is poor. The windows are small, and where the side window meets the forward windshield there’s a huge blind spot I always worried about. That plus the fact that the forward windows were in three panes and even more visibility is blocked.

And it’s not just outside visibility that’s a problem in the MD80 cockpit. Almost worse and certainly annoying is the fact that the yoke actually blocks the pilots’ view of the navigation display. That’s an unbelieveably clumsy design and shows typical disregard for the basics of human factors engineering.

Much better viz both inside and outside the 737. The seat is as comfortable and eureka! There’s a headrest–not so on the MD80. All of the 737 displays are readily reachable and easy to handle. The drawback? Not as much stowage or elbow room. Maybe the Boeing theory is that there’s ample display of anything you’d need a chart for, so you don’t need the side table to set up books and approach charts. It’s taking some creative adaptation on my part to get things in the “nest” where they’re useful, but that’s a fair trade for all of the improvements in displays and visibility in the Boeing.

Okay, that’s a quick look inside the cockpit. But the bigger question is, how do they compare flying-wise? And not sitting in the back which is, despite the frequent flyer nose-in-the-air attitude about it, “riding,” not flying.

Well, the first thing about the MD80 you notice is that at most gross weights, it accelerates and climbs fast. It’s pretty much standard on an average day that once you get off the ground and are sure you won’t strike the tail on the runway, you’re going to climb at 20 degrees nose high.

But the 737 is even more powerful and you can feel it, particularly at the higher thrust ratings which we sometimes uses on short runways. It too accelerates well and climbs without a fuss–from 600 feet at DFW to 38,000 feet in less than twenty minutes, a pretty good rate for an airliner.

That’s because of the wing: Boeing added three feet to each wing, plus the winglet as well. Never flew the plane before it had winglets, but that seems to give it a tightness in turbulence that’s probably not real popular in back. But the wing loading as a result of the broad spar structure gives it a solid feel which reminds me of the DC10: you set the pitch and bank and it wants to hold it.

The MD80 must be wrestled down final because it shows a real vulnerability to induced roll moment. That is, a gust on one wing seems to more adversely lift that wing both higher and more extremely than you experience with the 737. Again, the wingloading on the Boeing is less, so the effects are less extreme. And at the top of the cruise envelope, you can rely on the 737 wing and engines: when you have to turn on the engine and airfoil anti-ice, there’s power and lift to spare. The MD80? Good luck.

Add to that the limitations of the MD80 ailerons: they’re not hydraulically boosted. Rather, they “fly” into position by means of a tab that is displaced by the control wheel. This induces an input lag (the tab has to be moved, then gain airload) which  induces a slow response, plus I feel like the MD80 spoilers when they’re activated at slow speeds induce more unpleasant drag and sink than the 737’s again, probably, due to the high wing loading on the MD80.

The effect is even worse, too, on the MD80 because the rudder is nearly useless for anything other than slewing the nose around to extract the crosswind crab on short final. A Boeing rudder is actually as effective or even more effective (no spoiler float) than ailerons for making small (3-5 degrees) heading changes on final. The MD80, being a long tube, resists rudder input which only seems to induce an uncomfortable twisting moment. Bad combination with cumbersome ailerons an sluggish roll response.

I’m enjoying the tight, hydraulically boosted roll response on the 737. granted, after take-off and on departure, roll rates aren’t really important because there’s not much maneuvering required at anything other than standard rate. In that case, both jets have the response required and plenty of power.

But on approach, especially a visual approach, there’s no comparison: the 737 has fast response from a stable wing: it wants to stay where you put it, versus the MD80 that is squirrely all the way down final and on the runway until below about 90 knots. Used to think the MD80 had the techno edge over other airliners because of the autobrakes: when 727s were wrestling large crosswinds to land on a longer runway, we could stop just fine on a shorter, into-the-wind runway. But now, the 737 has a smoother system with 4 landing settings that is superior to the MD80’s older first generation system.

Flight guidance? I was always happy with the MD80 command bar display system. To me, especially after so many hours, the command bars (the “hojo” wings) to me seem more easily assumable than the 737 crossbars which are a throwback to the old 727 or DC10 era.

MD80 flight director.

Nonetheless, the 737 primary flight display is much larger and consolidates more data: airspeed, angle of attack–which the MD80 doesn’t even have–airspeed, vertical velocity, radio altimeter, barometric altimeter and flight mode annunciation as well as active frequency and identifiers. Make crosschecking easy and efficient.

Of course, the crosscheck is almost moot from the left seat which has the Head Up Display, or “HUD,” which synthesizes all of the information on my primary flight display–plus a few extras–and projects it all onto the glass in front of me. Essentially, I look through the information as we fly. It’s an amazing asset for poor weather and low visibility departures and approaches.

Night before last, going into a squally, low viz and gusty crosswind approach in Seattle, it was invaluable. Yes, it did take self-discipline to not look down and crosscheck the primary flight display, to instead trust the symbol generator and projector to not let me down in mid approach. But it was flawless: the generated runway target was a perfect overlay of the actual runway when we broke out of the soup at about 300 feet.

Well, there’s no comparison, ultimately, for me. The 737-800 is the product of years of refinement in both engineering and application. I guess once Rip VanWinkle wakes, there’s just no return to the slumberland of yore.

For me, this is a great way to fly; in fact, the only way from now on!


From Sea Level to 737 Captain: First Break.

Posted in air travel, aircraft maintenance, airline cartoon, airline delays, airliner, airlines, flight, flight crew, flight training, pilot with tags , , , , , on October 17, 2010 by Chris Manno

Note: this is part of a series relating what it’s like to transition to a new jet. If you want to start from the beginning, click here.




That’s the first week of classroom, Computer Based Training (CBT) and simulators. Two days off now.

Katrina, our ground school instructor, recommends we take at least one day of the two and do no airplane stuff. Bill the First Officer (sounds like an official title) is off to Wyoming to visit his girlfriend. Best to take Katrina’s advice and not do any aircraft-related stuff tomorrow.

Looking back, though, on the week:

The CBT stuff is helpful, even if you want to nod off on some of the programs (“this door opens to the left”). The good news is, you can do it at home thanks to the handy CD-Rom with all of the lessons on it.

It’s better to be out of the refrigerator that is The Flight Academy (can’t imagine the utility bill to keep it at 70 degrees). The only problem with that, though, is there are other screens in the house with somewhat more compelling images,

but since Tech seems to have no defense this year, 737 systems are actually more rewarding to view. Then after absorbing the material and taking the practice tests on the CD, back at The Schoolhouse (that’s what pilots have always called The Flight Academy) it’s time for the computer generated practice exam incorporating everything from class and the CBT.

First time on the comprehensive exam, 79%. Today–after being up at the buttcrack of dawn for a simulator session–scored 89%. So the academics are sinking in, and the test points out the weak (emergency equipment location) and strong subjects (engines), which is as it should be: did those programs last month, will brush up.

Some of this is a weird relief: just to be able to ram dump all of the byzantine MD-80 limitation numbers–climb EGT, acceleration, cruise, momentary, starting, after start, on and on.

This jet is just way smart: the solid state engine controls meter fuel flow so it NEVER hits a limitation and what’s more, and even more efficient, the limits are non-linear anyway. It’s not necessary for you to memorize a buttload of abstract numbers–rather, the smart boxes recompute all of the parameters based on the conditions at that time and place.

And it’s talking to our maintenance base constantly through non-stop telemetry. Katrina says you’re likely to get a call from them in flight asking for more data because an engine is reporting a vibration trend. That’s why an on-the-wing failure of these CFM-56 engines is rare.

And like something you’ve recited over and over too many times, the MD-80 numbers have lost their meaning anyway. Recall last month in the MD-80 currency check:

Evaluator: “Okay, Captain, what components are on the right hydraulic system?”

You: “Seriously?” We’re really going to do this?

Evaluator: “Yes.”

You: [in your head: for God’s sake, who cares anyway, if something fails we get out the book] “Everything that’s not on the right system?”

The annual systems knowledge oral recitation.

Evaluator: [eyebrows raised]

You: [in your head: 14,000 hours in the jet and we still have to play twenty questions] “Left nosewheel steering, inboard spoilers, elevator boost.”

Wake up! It’s today, that jet is an ancient memory. New stuff to learn, to remember, to find:

While you were bunkered in the MD-80 for twenty plus years, the airline jet manufacturers moved waaaaay ahead. That’s where the 737-800 stands out as cosmic:


A HUD is worth a thousand crosschecks.


You’re now captain cyborg, with your vision tunneled through a dynamic stream of data. Almost too much.

I’m thinking the ultimate technique would be to absorb as much performance and navigation information peripherally while still being primarily focused on the actual view through the data. That will take some practice, but that’s why we’re here at oh-dark-thirty in the simulator, right?

So here’s your day at the flight academy: review with instructor the systems you studied the day before, working through the CBT on your own. Then two hours in the simulator, trying to work through the various checklists for each phase of flight.

That’s awkward now, which is to be expected. It’s vital, as you well know, to actually and thoroughly focus on the checklist item itself. Now there’s a huge expenditure of energy and focus just to find stuff. The systems are laid out logically, which might be what’s confusing after so many years of the Maddog. Because it seems like the Douglas designers simply crammed indicators and alerts for EVERYTHING into that cockpit every which way and slammed the door.

Not much smarts involved: the MD-80 simply displays everything at once and lets you sort it out. The 737-800 brain inhibits info you don’t need, then organizes what you do need and offers it to you in a manageable format in a logical collection.

Weird, huh?

Meanwhile, more butt-in-seat time will bring together the location and function of the systems. The cumulative knowledge testing reflects that the big deal systems are sinking in (engines, fire detection/protection, electrical systems, APU) which means they all probably will in time.

And the big buggaboo, navigation systems–the most advanced stuff–seems to be no problem. It never has been a problem although it really should be, so count your blessing–somehow it just makes sense.

Two days off, then hit it even harder. Hope to have an update for you in a few days with higher test scores and maybe even the first inkling of feeling comfortable with the systems and procedures.

Meanwhile, like Bill, take some time to enjoy your girlfriend (below), too. She’s been patient, but don’t push your luck.


Starstruck, Star Trek, Shatner.

Posted in air travel, aircraft maintenance, airline delays, airliner, airport, airport security, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, flight delays, jet, passenger, travel, Uncategorized with tags , on September 26, 2010 by Chris Manno

If you fly into Burbank, chances are good that you’ll have someone from Hollywood on board. And not just a person who drives by the sign on the way to or from the airport, but a real Hollywood media type.

Enter Captain Kirk.

Let me explain. It was one of those evenings when the inbound jet was late, putting us behind schedule from the start. The aircraft had a couple of minor maintenance items that needed to be taken care of during the ground time as we pre-flighted, causing a further delay.

The mechanical items were minor: just some routine servicing.  But as is often the case, the paperwork involved took almost more time than the maintenance action itself. But neither item is anything to rush.

It’s always more fun to fly with an old friend and on this evening flight, the number four flight attendant, Debbie was someone I’d flown with many times. She’s been on a cabin crew with My Darling Bride before and knew her as well.

“Hey,” Debbie said, poking her head into the cockpit between greeting passengers, “we have William Shatner on board tonight.”

Whoa! Captain James T. Kirk? Well Captain Chris L. Manno sure would like to get his autograph for Darling Bride who is a huge Star-Trek fan. You wouldn’t expect that from a svelte, erudite, stylish stewardess type, but there it is.

“Debbie!” I motioned her into the cockpit. “You’ve GOT to get his autograph for Catherine! You know what a fan of William Shatner she is.” Me too, of course–especially the Denny Crane years–but how cool would it be to bring the autograph home to the Missuz?

“You know I can’t do that!” Debbie said, her voice lowered. “I’m NOT going to disturb William Shatner so you can make some points with your wife.”

Meanwhile, the delay mounted: still waiting for the final maintenance sign off. A few minutes later, Debbie was back.

“Mr. Shatner would like to talk to the captain.”

I shrugged. “You know what to do.” I handed her our flight plan and a pen.

“Oh for God’s sake.” She snatched both from my hand and disappeared.

A moment later, the flight plan reappeared, signed.

She folded her arms and raised an eyebrow. I unstrapped. “On my way.”

And there he was, in the first row of First Class, near the window on the starboard side. Face to face with Captain James T. Kirk. In civvies, of course.

And here’s what he said: click here for the audio.

Okay, that’s my lame rendition of what he said but you probably get my drift, right?

Anyway, I explained to him that it was only a matter of finishing up the paperwork, which should only be pretty quick. And whether he knew it or not, this was the last flight to Burbank. There was an LAX flight leaving later, but he’d still have to beam up to Burbank for his bags. I didn’t say that aloud though.

He thanked me for the information and told me to give his best to Catherine. What a class act he was.

And now I understand how things worked on the Starship Enterprise. You know how the embarkation to “boldly go” to a new and strange planet occurred on the old Star Trek show–the usual crewmembers readied themselves for beaming down in the transporter room.

There’d be Kirk, Spock, the Doc and then some no-name extra guy getting lined up for Scotty beam to beam them down. And you the viewer just knew the extra guy wasn’t coming back.

That’s so Bones could deliver some harsh news:

And Kirk could wax philosophical about the danger of exploration and high flight:

And that, I suppose, is as good a reason as any to be the captain of a Starship. Or a jetliner.

Heck, I’d follow him to the alien planet’s surface just to get to hang out with him a little longer. But after we landed on the not so strange world of Burbank (well, maybe it is a little odd), we left Mr. Shatner with his limo driver to wait for his bags.

And we boldly went to the usual layover hotel for a good twelve hour rest so as to be ready to fly again the next day.

Why? Because as Captain Kirk put it, “I have to, mister.”


Ryanair: An Empty Head, Two Heads, and a Pay Head.

Posted in air travel, aircraft maintenance, airliner, airlines, airport, baggage fees, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, jet, passenger, passenger bill of rights, pilot, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 19, 2010 by Chris Manno

Single-pilot airliners make financial sense, according to Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary, and that point I can’t argue.

Ryanair CEO Michael O'Lerary

But what I can and do argue is that any airline run by a CEO who makes operational decisions based primarily on cash value–and O’Leary is the airline guy who introduced the concept of the pay toilet to the airline world–is an airline I’d never fly on, much less let my family travel on.

It would be like consigning yourself to an operating room whose surgical procedures were based on cash value to the hospital. Under anesthesia, hope for the best and by the way, did you pre-pay the resuscitation and de-fibrillation fees?

More important though is how fundamentally ignorant O’Leary is regarding the very product he sells. Let’s start at the beginning.

There have been many high-tech single pilot aircraft flying successfully for years. But the difference is, there was only one life at stake and a guaranteed escape plan if the airplane became un-flyable:

That escape option doesn’t exist on an passenger jet. But that’s not the only reason why two pilots are necessary for safe airline flight.

The basic philosophy of the airline operation is that layers of redundancy safeguard the thousands of passengers who take flight each day. It’s not simply a case that two or three pilots can divide the workload, which is true.

What’s more important is that it takes more than one pilot to divide the task of safe flight into the components that require simultaneous undivided attention in the critical phases of flight during which the aircraft and everyone on board are most vulnerable.

And that’s just in normal operation. The division becomes even more critical during an abnormal or emergency situation. Here are two prime examples.

We routinely take off from airports with tiny runways designed for the smaller propeller aircraft of the fifties and sixties. Jets, particularly when they’re heavy, require miles of runway to accelerate to take-off speed. Even more critical than that is the additional runway required to achieve flying speed if an engine fails.

Which adds another constraint: stopping in case there’s not enough runway to continue to take-off speed after an engine failure. That, on a short runway like in LaGuardia, Washington National, Burbank, Chicago-Midway and San Diego to name but a few, makes an instantaneous decision to abort a life and death question: do you have enough speed and runway to continue into the air? Do you have enough runway and not too much speed to stop?

Add to the stopping situation the wild card: is whatever failure for which you’re aborting going to affect your ability to stop? That is, with an electrical, hydraulic, landing gear or a few other potential failures–you can’t and won’t stop on the runway.

How does one person sort all of the variables of speed, runway length remaining, malfunctions and stopping capability and make the correct split second decision to stop or go?

The answer is, one pilot doesn’t.

Despite O’Leary’s theory that one pilot does most of the flying–and maybe it’s true–two pilots are needed for the big decisions like the above and many other split second decisions that have to be made in the critical landing  phase, here’s the secret: divide.

The take-off situation I just described is what we call a balanced field. That is, there’s exactly enough runway to allow for an engine failure, then a continued take-off on one engine or a safe stop on the runway. This is not just a short runway contingency either–the miles long runways at both Denver and Mexico City are often barely long enough in the summer heat due to their mile-high altitude.

Either way, the safe stop depends upon all of the stopping systems–spoilers, brakes, hydraulics, electrics–all working. You have a split second to decide. And in all of the above locations, there is no overrun. You’re going off the airport at high speed, loaded with fuel.

When I take-off from a balanced field, I divide the focus and tasking this way: the first officer will make the take-off. He is the “go” guy, meaning if I don’t take over and abort, we’re flying. He has but one task, no matter what, one engine or two, malfunctions or not: fly.

I, on the other hand, am the “stop” guy. I’m only looking for the Big Four as we call them: engine failure, engine fire, windshear, structural failure. I’m looking for those and only those–not both malfunctions and take-off performance. Because my righthand man is zeroed in on that.

We both then have individual, singular focus on the critical items in two opposing but now separate dynamic realms. It’s simple. It’s smooth, it’s reliable.

And it’s not possible with a single pilot.

Same theory of separation is vital on low visibility, bad weather landings, only this time the roles are reversed: I’m flying and looking outside for critical landing references, the First Officer’s entire focus is inside on the instruments, looking for any anomaly that would require a discontinued approach.

The O’Leary method, apparently, is to simply roll it all into one and save a few bucks per plane on pilot salaries. Never mind split second decisions, separation of critical duties and focus and ultimately, your safety.

Which might result in a few bucks of savings on your Ryanair ticket. But be prepared to give it back to them in flight eventually anyway.

That is, if you can muster the courage to fly on an airline whose CEO sees everything in terms of dollars and cents–but has little common sense himself.

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