Archive for the airline pilot blog Category

Let’s talk about writing about flying.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline pilot, airline pilot blog with tags , , , , , on March 15, 2021 by Chris Manno

Let’s talk flying, and writing–and writing about flying.

It’s a lively discussion of both on the Clueless Gent podcast–just CLICK HERE to listen.

We talk about flying, about writing, about crazy flight stories and a behind-the-scenes look at An Airline Pilot’s Life, the true (“Best Fiction 2020”), insider story of life as an airline pilot. Click here to check out the book on Amazon.com.

Now Give *Yourself* a Gift: Signed Copy of An Airline Pilot’s Life.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline industry, airline pilot, airline pilot blog with tags , , , , , , , on December 26, 2020 by Chris Manno

You deserve a post-holiday gift for yourself. For a limited time, you can grab a signed copy of Amazon #1 New Release and winner of “Best Non-Fiction of 2020:”

The perfect reward for yourself, or the gift of inspiration for any fledgling aviator or anyone considering the airline pilot career field: from first solo in a Cessna 152 to supersonic solo in a USAF T-38, then on to seven years as a USAF pilot, then 35 years in the cockpits of the world’s largest airline, most as captain.

Here’s what readers and book reviewers are saying about this insider view of the airline pilot world:

Written with heart, wry wit, and honesty. Chris Manno has a strong eye for dialogue and for detail, and both are put to use in this entertaining, info-packed memoir of a pilot. –J. Beldon

Wow; just, wow. Great read. Refused to put it down. –NB

Right from the beginning of this book, I was hooked, reading the story of what could have been a deadly end to a planned jump from an airplane. –Maryann Miller

An honest peek inside a life well-lived, An Airline Pilot’s Life is the best memoir I’ve read in years. –Jennifer Silverwood

Get your signed copy HERE. Or, just scan the QR code below to go directly to the order page.

Should the Boeing 737-MAX Fly Again?

Posted in air travel, airline, airline pilot, airline pilot blog with tags , , , , , , on November 11, 2020 by Chris Manno

Should the Boeing 737-MAX fly again?

The simple answer is, yes, the Boeing 737-MAX should and, I’m certain, will fly again. But the next question is even more important: is the airline industry prepared to fly the MAX? The answer to that is neither simple nor optimistic. Let me explain.

First, here’s my perspective. I have over 5,000 hours of pilot-in-command time in the Boeing 737-800 as an American Airlines captain. When the airline began to integrate the MAX into our fleet, I went through what I would classify as a very minimal “differences” training program: this is different; this functions in a new way that is actually better though counter-intuitive; this is completely different and ultimately, muscle memory and patterned responses must all be relearned. And that half-day of “training” was actually six months before we’d even put the first MAX into flight ops. Like anyone could or would remember the details for the six months until the jets arrived, or could refresh their “differences” knowledge by reviewing the digital media put together by the Fleet Training staff.

            That’s the reality of training at a major airline, where the benefit of a high-time pilot group is mortgaged by the airline bean-counters who will cut the training to the bare minimum because “pilots will figure it out on the line.” That was my exact experience after over 15,000 MD-80 flight hours as I transitioned into the 737 fleet. The old workhorse MD-80 was a simplistic, 1960s-era round-dial dinosaur compared to the advanced flight management systems on the 737-800. Everything from navigation to displays to engine power management was brand new and generation ahead of the Old Maddog I was used to. Don’t get me wrong—I loved the brand new -800 and she was a definite step up from the Douglass world.

            But the training, even for a twenty-four-year captain, was like drinking from the firehose or as we’d say in my Air Force pilot days, like cramming ten pounds of shit into a five-pound bag. “It’s alright,” the training folks would say, “You’ll figure it out on the line.” And I did, of course, with the gracious help of a fleet of highly experienced First Officers. Even so, after my initial qualification checkride, I told our Fleet Manager, “You know, coming off the Jurassic Jet, I sure could have used a couple more days to work through this training syllabus.” “Yeah,” he sighed, “When we originally designed the syllabus, it was two days longer. But the bean counters at headquarters said, ‘eighty-percent of the pilots could do it in less time,’ so they shaved two days off to save money.”

            I’d seen that before, as an MD-80 Check Airman myself. The FAA had designated several challenging airports as requiring additional pilot instruction to ensure flight safety. One of our MD-80 “special” airports requiring captains to fly their first approach with a Check Airman was Montrose, a ski destination in the Colorado Rockies. As a Check Airman, I’d be given training on an actual flight into Montrose by another Check Airman who’d already been “trained.” In my case, the checkout flight was with a Check Airman buddy who’d been to Montrose exactly once, on his “training” flight. The next day, I’d do the same for another Check Airman, after being their exactly once myself. Get the picture?

            Now, fast forward to the MAX’s return. Of course, the FAA will mandate some “training.” And of course, the airline bean-counters will try to shave off training dollars, to cut the cost, to let pilots, especially the very capable and experienced major carrier pilots, “get it on the line.” But the problem with that is there are no high-time MAX pilots, unlike the ones who helped me through my first 500 hours on the 737-800. And no one’s been flying the MAX in years, so there’s really no experience base to draw on by pilots in either seat.

            The Allied Pilots Association representing the 15,000 pilots of American Airlines says the MAX training program is inadequate in several areas but the one that stands out is timing: every three years for this vital training, says APA, is totally inadequate. And I totally agree.

            Make no mistake about it: the American Airlines pilots are the best in the world and thankfully for all concerned, they’re represented by a strong union with plenty of safety and training expertise. That’s why there have been no problems with MAX flights done by any major U.S. carrier. But what about the small carriers in developing countries with little or no longstanding training, supervision and oversight budget or practice? With low-time, neophyte pilots? The Lion Airs of the world?

The Allied Pilots Association is the canary in the coal mine: if they’re concerned, so am I. If the American Airlines pilots need more and more frequent MAX training, so do the Lion Air pilots. Yes, the MAX can, should, and will fly again. But not until the training is right so the pilots are ready. Period.

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Live the airline pilot life, from military flying to the world’s largest airline.

Start your journey HERE.

Freebie Alert

Posted in air travel, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airlines, aviation, flight attendant, flight crew with tags , , , , on October 7, 2020 by Chris Manno

Get your hands on Amazon’s #1 New Release in Commercial Aviation FREE, today only.

Want the inside scoop on airline crew life? Are you a crewmember now, or have you been–or are you planning to join the airline crew profession someday? Here’s the good, the bad, the ugly; the rewarding parts as well as the heartbreak; the extreme behavior, some misbehavior–some extreme misbehavior, in the air and on the ground. It’s the unvarnished reality of aircrew life, hidden by the airlines and mostly untold by the crews … until now.

Get your free Kindle download HERE, today only.

Do Pilots and Flight Attendants Hook Up?

Posted in air travel, airline, airline cartoon, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, flight attendant, flight crew, pilot with tags , , , , , , on July 2, 2020 by Chris Manno

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The simple answer is, yes … and no. Here’s the full story.

First crewlife is different from the average work life, for a couple reasons. First, when crews show up “at work,” the first thing they do is scatter to the four winds. No boss, no supervision, no oversight–gone. I always liked that aspect of my job as an airline pilot, especially as a captain: there’s no “boss”–except maybe me as captain–but rather, just a job to do. That job is flying, something we like to do.

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When we as crew are out on the road, most of the logistics that the biz or leisure traveler need to worry about are taken care of: transportation, hotels, airport access. So, in theory, there’s the potential for some social interaction.

In “the good old days,” pilots and flight attendants were “paired” for an entire sequence, meaning, the cockpit crew and the cabin crew were scheduled for the same flights and the same layovers, sometimes for the whole month.  If there was time an opportunity–say, the long Cabo layover, with open bar included in the hotel stay–there could be some partying going on.

We used to say on the Fokker, which had a crew consisting of two pilots and two flight attendants, that every trip was a double-date. In fact, on my F-100 captain checkout trip, I met a flight attendant who I dated for much of the next year.

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The F-100: “Every trip was a double-date.”

That ended when I met another flight attendant on another F-100 trip and in less than two weeks, we decided we should be married. And we have been married for the past twenty-five years. I detail this story, plus many other pretty extreme pilot and flight attendant connections, here.

But truth be told, we’re the exception to the rule. While there are many pilot and flight attendant couples, and many flight attendants married or committed to other flight attendants, and many pilots with the same connections with other pilots, several factors have made those connections less likely.

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First, the crewlife workday ain’t what it used to be: work hours are longer, layovers are shorter, and hotels are of lesser quality and the locations seldom in choice areas any more.

Plus, a few years back, the FAA instituted new crew rest requirements for pilots, but there are no such federally mandated rest requirements for flight attendants–a travesty in itself, but that’s another story. The end result has been that often, pilots and flight attendants stay at different hotels or even if they’re at the same property, the flight attendants are headed back to the airport after a shorter–typically inadequate–rest break.

Flight attendants are worn out from such brutal scheduling with too little rest. That kind of kills the social prospects of any layover situation. But there’s more.

Flight attendants tend to be outgoing, confident, adept at handling any situation, self-assured and practiced in the social arts from calming a passenger storm on board to leading their own lives with confidence and independence.

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Pilots tend more towards the nerdish, narrow-thinking, dogmatic way of seeing the world. It’s kind of the opposite pole of the typical flight attendant personality. Pilots land toward the control-freak end of the personality bell curve and many are insecure with a strong-minded, independent partner.

If a pilot can handle the typical flight attendant confidence and grace–and really, who wouldn’t?–the results can be a lifetime partnership:

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But then, there are also so epic train wrecks, and I detail them both, success and spectacular failure, in vivid, real-life case files in An Airline Pilot’s Life. Read it, and you’ll have a pretty clear picture of what exactly goes on between pilots and flight attendants.

From Amazon Books, Kindle ($5.19) or paperback ($17.99).

Just CLICK HERE.

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Freefall and Pictures

Posted in action-adventure, air travel, airline, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, flight training with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 23, 2020 by Chris Manno

Maybe you’ve heard of Amazon’s #1 New Release in Commercial Aviation, An Airline Pilot’s Life.  The true story starts with a step into nothingness 2,000 feet above the hard-packed clay of Southwest Virginia. Then, the parachute fails. Here’s the pic–and the story–plus a few more photos from this fast-selling new book.

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Last one into the jump plane, because I’m going to be the first one out. Then, all hell breaks loose.

From An Airline Pilot’s Life:

Chapter 1

Nothing but a furious blue sky above, laced on top with a wispy cirrus deck like a delicate veil. Below, the earth screamed up at nearly terminal velocity and the jump plane was nowhere to be seen. Fine.

“Hop and pop,” it’s called: fling yourself out the open aircraft door two thousand, maybe twenty-five hundred feet above the ground if the jump plane pilot’s feeling generous, then plunge. I only paid for two thousand feet, but I’d hoped for a bit more.

One fist on my helmet, drawn in as my ripcord hand goes for the handle, so as not to flip myself over from the imbalance. Grab, pull, wait.

Nada.

The rumply-fluttery sound of the main chute dragged out by the smaller drogue flapping upward in the slipstream, but no reassuring, nut-crunching harness tug of full deployment. Okay, arch your neck, look up.

Shit.

The sleeve’s still on the main chute and it’s wagging like a big streamer yards above my head. The sleeve covers, reefs, the main chute. Ain’t opening. I shake the risers like a stagecoach driver urging on a team of horses, trying to shake loose the sleeve, to let the main parachute blossom full and wide but no.

My frantic attempt to clear the streamer has eaten up precious time, too much time. I’d “cut away,” release my tangled main and go for my reserve chute, but I’ve spent too many valuable seconds trying to clear the tangled main. The reserve chute will need at least five hundred feet to blossom full enough to arrest my plunge. I can see cows below, coming into distinct focus, as the ground rises to meet me. That’s bad.

I’d had no money for flying lessons, paying my own way through college, so that was way out of my budget. But skydiving was a fraction of the cost. Bought a used chute, took a few lessons—just get me into the sky and I’ll find my own way down.

Like right now. The voice of calm logic in my head annoys the panicked side of my brain with the salient fact that well, with a streamer, you won’t achieve terminal velocity because of the tangled chute’s drag, so you’ll only hit the packed dirt at ninety, maybe ninety-five miles an hour.

The mortal side of me, the soft pink flesh and blood humanism that doesn’t want to impact the dirt clod strewn pasture land at ninety miles an hour begins to perceive the red lip of terror, but there’s more to be done. I clutch my reserve chute tight with my left arm, then pull and toss away the reserve ripcord.

Both the relentlessly rational side of me and the human side feeling the growing alarm of near death unite in the methodical, careful last-ditch effort: grab the reserve with both hands and throw it downward as hard as you can. Hope and pray the reserve chute catches air and inflates on the way up rather than tangling with the snagged main chute flapping away above.

I give it a heave downward with all I’ve got. I mash my eyes shut, not wanting to see the results. I’ll know soon enough, whether the chutes tangled together and assured my death within seconds, or if I’d beat the odds and have the reserve chute blossom and displace tangled main. Or not.

The calm, unrelenting voice of reason, always there no matter what, had the last words: you really didn’t have jump out of a perfectly good airplane.

Way to go, dumbass.

Copyright 2020 Chris Manno All Rights Reserved

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The rest of the story? It’s all here:

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For paperback or Kindle, CLICK HERE.

And …. more pictures from the true story.

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USAF Pilot Training in Lubbock Texas. We had a blast–the stories are in the book–and here are the real-life people from the story: me on the left, The Coke standing next to me, and Animal Hauser above us both.

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The Wolfpack, above. That’s me with my flight suit unzipped, Chip leaning on my shoulder, and Animal Hauser leaning in front of me. Lot’s of adventures with this bunch, and the book puts you in the cockpit with us.

Then, I shipped off to Kadena Air Base on the Island of Okinawa as a tanker copilot for two years of flying all over the Pacific, Asia and the Indian Ocean. Below, that’s me and Widetrack, a guy I flew with and shared some pretty wild times–which are also in the book.

Me and Widetrack, waiting on the wing of our jet.

Me and Widetrack, waiting on the wing of our jet.

Those were the early years, my Air Force experience which led me to a career as an airline pilot, which is also covered, putting you in the cockpit of the world’s largest airline. Here’s a sneak peek:

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Animal, Chip, me, and The Coke. The story of our journey from USAF pilot training to captain’s stripes is epic, and the details are what comprises Amazon’s #1 New Release in Commercial Aviation.:

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Kindle ($5.19) or Paperback ($17.99) Just CLICK HERE.

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“Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow up to Be Pilots.”

Posted in air travel, airline, airline cartoon, airline pilot blog, airport, aviation, crewlife, pilot with tags , , , , , on June 18, 2020 by Chris Manno

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I doubt Willie and Waylon couldn’t pass an FAA administered flight crew drug test, and their “mamas” knew that, the song notwithstanding. But what about the rest of us?

Sure, airline pilots realize the challenges and constraints put on them by the profession, including constant flight evaluations, performance monitoring (any other profession data-stream and archive performance for analysis and critique?), invasion of privacy (any other professions require annual disclosure of  physicals, mental health, arrests and convictions?) and recurring random drug and alcohol testing.

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Enter Covid-19. which dwarfs the above career threats we’ve all accepted, endured and tolerated up until now.

Rewind just six months in the U.S airline industry and the picture was much different: the mid-1980s hires, pilots who are now nearing mandatory retirement (another unique airline pilot reality) which would create a massive pilot shortage across the airline industry. “If you get hired today,” the siren song went, “You’ll be a captain in five years.” Massive seniority catapult, the retirements were supposed to be.

Pilots at regionals felt they could be picky about which major airline they hire on with: I have a friend who flew for Comair for over ten years, waiting and adamant about only working for Delta Airlines eventually. After three years at Delta–when he could have gone to several other carriers years earlier–he’s now on the street for at least three years.

Another friend at Emirates reports their pandemic-mandated pilot cuts weren’t done strictly by seniority–rather, management took the opportunity to boot dozens of pilots with attendance records and other personnel issues the airline didn’t want to deal with ever again. Not furloughed–terminated.

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And many snooty pilots shunned the quiet financial dynamos like Spirit, Frontier and JetBlue, holding out for a marquee carrier like United, Delta and American, only to witness their peers who DID hire on with these powerful Low Cost Carriers upgrade to captain and enjoy a job security despite the pilot cuts (some are still hiring pilots) even as the “snooty pilots” are furloughed by their own carriers, with recall nowhere in sight.

No matter who they are or where they came from–the military, regionals, corporate, cargo or general aviation–all airline pilots have taken a beating, weathered harsh early flying jobs, invested unimaginable sweat equity, personal sacrifice, and expense, just to call an airline cockpit home. Now this.

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Me and my USAF pilot buds.

Ex-military pilots who maintained an ANG or AFRES connection may be able to get back onto active military service once again, but even that’s with drastically reduced pay and much more demanding flying in terms of time away from home and family, much less the risk involved in military versus civilian flying. Other may be able to make their “side hustle”–if they have one, into a financial lifeboat for the near term.

Yes, pilots laughed at me when I fought my way through 65 on-campus graduate hours to earn a PhD as they enjoyed their boat/motorcycle/airplane/toys, but I’ve been teaching at a university for the past 17 years and just upped my class schedule, mostly for the additional income.

I know several pilots who struggled through law school while flying fulltime and at least now have gainful employment despite the dried-up aviation opportunities. Others have real estate licenses, teaching credentials and I even know one first officer who’s on track with a management training program at a major box store chain. Not what we expected, but smart because it pays the bills.

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But it all comes down to this: if you want to be an airline pilot, beyond the many unreasonable demands of the industry and the government agencies that oversee the licenses required to hold the flight privileges, the fundamentals of personal and financial disaster lurk just below the thin veneer of airline pilot reality: flying is a great career–until the career vanishes.

I’m rooting for the pilots still clinging to their seniority lists despite reduced flight hours and the defacto pay cut that produces. I’m hopeful for the smart pilots who had the foresight to hire on with the Low Cost Carriers who are poised to dominate the airline biz in the post-pandemic years ahead. And I’m empathetic to those pilots who were simply victims of a very capricious airline industry, despite the rosy predictions of only a few months ago.

For everyone else: “Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be pilots.”

Get the full, insider airline pilot story:

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Amazon’s #1 New Release in Commercial Aviation! All the insider, in-cockpit drama of a major airline flying life.

Paperback or Kindle, just CLICK HERE.

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An Airline Pilot’s Life: Windshear Flashback.

Posted in air travel, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, aviation, wind shear with tags , , , , , , on June 11, 2020 by Chris Manno

Not every airline adventure–or misadventure–made it into An Airline Pilot’s Life, if only for the sake of controlling the page count. You can read an excerpt from the book that puts you in the DC-10 cockpit for my first copilot landing at LaGuardia in this month’s Airways Magazine.

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Meanwhile, here’s an incident where we tangled with windshear on approach to Raleigh-Durham Airport and to be honest, I wasn’t sure we’d successfully escape. Read on:

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The weather at Raleigh was iffy, with thunderstorms moving from east to west, towering cumulus that ranged in height between twenty-five and thirty thousand feet. That, in the context of airline operations, was simply North Carolina in the summertime.

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The MD-80 cockpit felt crowded with three of us crammed into the small compartment in the pointy end. It wasn’t unusual to have a jumpseater but for some reason, the space that day seemed too small. But, the back of the jet was equally crammed with all 142 passenger seats full, so the extra pilot on the jumpseat, who was actually an FO I’d enjoyed flying with in the past, was a reality so he could join some buddies in Raleigh for a golf outing.

Enroute, my excellent, experienced, retired Air Force FO requested the Raleigh-Durham Airport weather. That flight segment always seemed quick to me, maybe because I was more accustomed to the longer Seattle or Boston legs out of DFW, so I was glad he’d gotten an early start on the weather.

“The airfield is clear,” he said, and handed me the weather that our onboard printer had spit out. I glanced at it with my non-engineer’s pilot eyes: Instinct mattered as much as data, to me. I looked for the big picture, the hidden details, like what signs are there foretelling what’s to come. Pressure falling rapidly, towering cumulus northeast. Yeah, the airfield’s clear—but. Something felt wrong.

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“Let’s plan flaps 28,” I said, which doesn’t sound extraordinary: the MD-80 standard approach configuration was 28 degrees of flaps because it saved fuel. I didn’t hold with that, personally, having flown the MD-80 for twenty-plus years myself. There were less times when 28 was actually required than not, and I liked having the power up on approach because of the added drag of 40 flaps because it made for better go-around response under normal circumstances.

But “what wasn’t there,” what the weather report didn’t explicitly state, gave me pause: flaps 40 meant flaps 15 for go-around, which was extra drag we wouldn’t need if there was a hint of wind shear. Flaps 28 was less drag on the approach and since it would be paired with flaps 11 on the go-around, if we were to fly a go-around, which was also an extra margin of performance we might be glad we had. Layers of thinking and prevention, that’s all part of the captain’s job.

We started a long enroute descent straight into runway 05L. We’d briefed the approach as an ILS, my preference, even though the weather was currently VFR. I always prefer the precision approach and the missed approach, myself. That way, if we request the ILS, there’s no ambiguity about what we’ll do on the missed approach. So many pilots brief “Missed approach will be with the tower” which is really no brief at all. More importantly—and I often have to correct this—if you’re cleared to fly the ILS, you’re expected to fly the published missed approach, not “go with the tower.”

Ahead to the east of the field, the sky darkened to a bruised blue and clouds stacked well into the stratosphere. We had a good radar paint ahead which showed just enough mileage between us and the storms to execute the missed approach if needed. The winds seemed steady off the nose, maybe even increasing slightly, which foretold the approaching gust front from the storms east of the field.

We never saw it coming: below a thousand feet, in clear air, with the runway in sight, we lost over twenty knots of airspeed instantly and began to sink. In a heartbeat, the WAGS (Windshear Alert And Guidance System) sprang to life, commanding a pitch-up and calling out “Windshear! Windshear!”

I kicked off the autothrottles and I was already hand-flying, so I aimed the nose towards fifteen degrees of pitch and firewalled the throttles. Still, we continued to sink, even at maximum thrust from both engines.

“Fifteen degrees,” my FO called out to cue me, “We’re still sinking, airspeed minus ten.”

I caught the five-hundred foot marker on the radio altimeter tape out of the corner of my eye. Shit. And we were still sinking.

We’d been ambushed: an outflow boundary from a thunderhead behind us had tossed us a huge tidal wave of tailwind. Slowly, gradually, we regained flying speed and crept skyward at barely two-hundred feet per minute. We cleaned up, executed the missed approach and as we did, we requested clearance direct to Norfolk. We cruised the twenty minutes to Norfolk in relative quiet.

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“You just never know,” I told my FO as we taxied in to a gate at Norfolk. He just nodded. We’d done everything correctly, but: you just never know. You’re vulnerable on approach, dirty, slow and low and I was just glad for my instinctive bias towards flaps 28, just based on a hunch.

The jumpseater actually deplaned in Norfolk—said he’d rent a car and drive back to Raleigh, even though we’d be returning there ourselves after refueling. About half of the passengers deplaned too, because I guess they’d all had enough flying for the day, especially with the closeup look at the dirt a few miles from the Raleigh runway.

Procedures, instinct and luck—a little bad luck and a lot of good—and we made it to Raleigh a few hours after the storm had passed. Sometimes, it’s just that way.

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Get the full story–read the true story that is Amazon’s #1 New Release in Commercial Aviation:

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From Amazon Books–just CLICK HERE.

Kindle ($5.19) — Paperback ($17.99)

 

MD-80 Flashback

Posted in airline, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airlines, airport, aviation, crewlife, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, flight training, pilot, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 28, 2020 by Chris Manno

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I flew the American Airlines’ MD-80s for over 20 years and more than 10,000 pilot hours. She was the mainstay of our fleet for a long time and generally speaking, it was a decent jet to fly.

My first actual flight as copilot is recorded in detail below. This is an excerpt from my true-life story, An Airline Pilot’s Life, which is holding at Amazon’s #1 New Release in commercial aviation. In this book I take you along in the cockpits of American Airlines’ DC-10s, MD-80s, F-100s and Boeing 737s. Every training program, every aircraft shakedown flight, and more, including my years as an instructor/evaluator pilot. How do the jet’s controls feel? What are the maneuvering characteristics? How is the engine response? Get firsthand, first-person answers.

Here’s a sample, letting you sit in the copilot’s seat on my first landing in the MD-80, with 142 passengers on board:

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“Localizer capture,” said Charles Clack, a Check Airman, from the left seat. Ahead, the lights of the Los Angeles basin sprawled like diamonds scattered across the blanket of night as we sank lower on our approach to Long Beach Airport.

Technically, I should have made that callout, being the pilot flying, as soon as our flight director system captured the navigational signal leading us to the runway. But that was why there was a Check Airman in the captain’s seat supervising my first landing—with 142 unknowing passengers aboard—in the MD-80.

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As is typically the case, I discovered the real aircraft flew better and different from the simulator, which had been my total experience “flying” the MD-80 up to that point. I had the jet trimmed up nicely and the winds were mild so she flew a steady, true course with little correction from me.

But the most important, exciting and rewarding point for me was, I was the pilot flying. That felt good, after almost two years sitting sideways at the DC-10 engineer’s panel. That had been an easy, decent gig, but this is what I was here for.

Fully configured with full flaps, the MD-80 autothrottles kept the EPR (Engine Pressure Ratio, pronounced “EEP-er”) fairly high, which was good: she flew more stable at a higher power setting with more drag. The MD-80 Operating Manual recommended flaps 28 for routine use because it saved fuel due to the reduced drag compared to flaps 40. But I learned from experience that the jet flew a better, tighter approach at the higher power setting and really, how much extra fuel was being burned from the final approach fix to touchdown anyway?

Fully configured with gear and flaps, I simply flew the long silver jet down the guy wire Major Wingo had told me about, from our vector altitude all the way to touchdown on the comparatively short Long Beach runway. The landing was firm but decent, although the nosewheel came down harder than I’d anticipated.

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“I should have reminded you about that,” Charles said later in the hotel van. “With flaps forty, the nose is heavy; so you have to ease it down.”

Still, nothing could dampen my elation at having flown my first takeoff and landing in a passenger jet at a major airline. With a full load of passengers on board. That was it—I was really an airline pilot at last. Cross another item off the dream come true list, I said to myself silently.

The first officer upgrade at the Schoolhouse had been a breeze for a couple reasons. First, the McDonnell-Douglas systems logic and flight guidance processes were much the same as those on the DC-10. I already understood “CLMP,” “IAS,” “VS” and all of the flight guidance modes and what they’d do because I’d been monitoring the DC-10 pilots’ processes and procedures for a couple years.

And, I was paired with Brian, a very smart, capable captain-upgrade pilot for the entire ground school and simulator programs. He was a Chicago-based pilot, quiet, serious, and very capable. He offered easygoing help and coaching, just as he’d do with his copilots up at O’Hare and I learned a lot from him. He’d be an excellent captain, I could already tell, and in fact, he became a Check Airman himself eventually.

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The MD-80 itself was a study in design contradictions. When Douglas Aircraft stretched the old DC-9 by adding two fuselage extensions, one forward of the wing root and one aft, they didn’t enlarge or beef up the wing at all. By contrast, when Boeing extended the 737 series, they’d enlarged and improved the wing. The MD-80 simply had higher wing loading, which is not an optimal situation from a pilot’s view. The lift was adequate, but certainly not ample, reducing the stall margin. While Boeing’s philosophy was “make new,” Douglas seemed to be simply “make do.”

The ailerons were unpowered, relying on the exact same sluggish flying tabs the old KC-135 tankers had. She was lethargic and clumsy in the roll axis and the actual control wheels in the cockpit were cartoonishly large to give pilots more leverage against the lethargic ailerons. To boost roll response at slower speeds, the wing spoilers were metered to the ailerons, which was a mixed blessing: they didn’t raise the left wing to reinforce a right turn; rather, they dropped the right wing with drag. In an engine failure situation, the last thing you needed was spoiler drag added to engine thrust loss in any maneuver. That was Douglas doing “make do,” as they had done with so many hastily added components on the DC-10.

air captain upgrade 001

The instrument panel was chaotic, as if they’d just thrown in all the indicators and instruments they could think of and then slammed the door. That left the pilots to constantly sort out useful information and block out distracting nuisance warnings. Douglas made a stab at lightening the scan load on the pilots with an elaborate array of aural warnings, a voice known as “Bitching Betty” to pilots. They just weren’t sensitive enough to be useful, like yelling “landing gear” in certain situations where landing gear wasn’t needed, which gradually desensitized a pilot to the point where you’d reflexively screen out the distraction, which was good, but also the warning, which was bad.

MD-80 emergency card 2 001 (2)

The most unbelievable bit of cockpit clumsiness was the HSI, or “Horizontal Situation Indicator,” the primary compass-driven course and heading indicator before each pilot. Mine on the copilot’s side was placed off-center and mostly behind the bulky control yoke. It was actually angled slightly to make it more visible to the captain, because his instrument display was also obstructed by his control yoke, an incredibly clumsy arrangement.

The ultimate design goofiness was the standby compass, which on most aircraft was located right above the glareshield between the pilots. Douglas engineers must have had a field day designing the MD-80 whiskey compass, locating it on the aft cockpit bulkhead above the copilot’s right shoulder. To use it, you had to flip up a folding mirror on the glareshield itself, aim and find the compass behind both pilots’ backs, then try to fly while referencing the compass in the tiny mirror.

The fuselage was long and thin, earning the jet the nickname “the Long Beach sewer pipe” because it had been built in Long Beach at the McDonnell-Douglas plant. Flight attendants called it the “Barbie Dream Jet” because it was almost toy-like compared to the other American Airlines narrow body jet, the 727.

MD 80 cockpit 1

The problem with the increased fuselage length was that Douglas hadn’t enlarged the rudder at all on the stretched MD-80, so the rudder itself was fairly useless for heading changes or turn coordination. All it seemed to do was torque the fuselage and have little effect on the aircraft’s azimuth. Eventually, an MD-80 pilot learned to ignore the rudder pedals in the air, unless it was needed to control yaw during a thrust loss on either engine.

The aspect of having the engines mounted along the aircraft centerline was a good deal compared to wing mounted engines which incur more asymmetrical yaw in an engine failure and I appreciated that. The engines were so far back that you couldn’t hear an engine failure in the cockpit, so there were actually warning lights to alert pilots of a failure.

The JT8D engine response was forceful and the engines themselves were the Pratt and Whitney equivalent of the gutsy General Electric TF-33 fanjets we had on the EC-135 J at Hickam. Minus the roll heaviness and disregarding the cockpit design mess, I wasn’t about to let anything dampen my enthusiasm for line flying as a pilot at a major airline.

I’d waited long enough to bid first officer that I could actually hold a set schedule rather than an “on call” reserve pilot schedule. At my seniority range, the trips weren’t very good, but they were trips just the same.

My first month I held a schedule of early two day Buffalo trips. Still, I was undaunted—I had a schedule! A regular airline pilot trip.

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Read more: fly the DC-10, the F-100 and more.

Get your copy of An Airline Pilot’s Life in paperback or Kindle format from Amazon Books HERE.  Makes a great Father’s Day gift!

Want a signed copy (US only)? Click Here.

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An Airline Pilot’s Life Now Available In Paperback & Kindle.

Posted in air travel, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airliner, aviation, crewlife, flight attendant, flight crew, flight training, pilot, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 24, 2020 by Chris Manno

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This is the true story that is Amazon’s #1 new release in Commercial Aviation, now available in paperback! Now you can live the pilot’s life yourself, from early years flying gas-powered, control line aircraft, to soloing in a Cessna 152, to USAF pilot training and soloing a supersonic T-38, to many years as an Air Force pilot in the Pacific, to American Airlines and a decades-long airline pilot career around the world, most of it as captain.

You’re in the pilot’s seat, living every step of the journey, hands-on, first person; the unvarnished truth that is the reality of a pilot’s life.

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Critics have called this “the real thing,” “an extraordinary adventure,” and “the closest most of us will ever get to flying a jetliner.” It’s all here, from the flying the DC-10 to captain upgrade to the MD-80 left seat, to instructor/evaluator, pilot union elected officer, to the Fokker-100 and eventually, the 737-800.

Live the dream yourself, every approach, every tight spot, every behind-the-scenes adventure in a vivid, fast-paced real life story.

Get your copy from Amazon books–just CLICK HERE.

Then, let your first-person adventure begin.

From Goodreads: “Reading this book, one learns what goes into the making of an airline pilot, as well as what is in the heart and soul of an airline pilot. I highly recommend it on both counts.”

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