Archive for the airline pilot blog Category

The Glamorous Airline Pilot Life.

Posted in airline cartoon, airline pilot blog, Uncategorized on February 15, 2016 by Chris Manno

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I’m standing by my outbound gate, trying not to be annoyed by the fact that my inbound jet is over an hour late. That easily pushes what should be a nine or ten hour flight duty day for me to more like twelve. Same thing happened yesterday, same flight tomorrow. What are the chances?

From the sea of passengers milling around the departure lounge, the lead flight attendant walks up, talking. I can’t hear her yet, I can only see her mouth moving as she approaches, but she seems oblivious. She’s like that in flight, too.

“So I didn’t get home till midnight,” she concludes, eyes wide as if it were a question.

Do I have to ask why? Do I really? “Why?”

“I was waiting for the airport bus to the employee lot when I see this black box behind the retaining wall near the stop.”

Go on, I don’t say. Because I know I don’t have to.

“So I pick it up in case a crewmember forgot it but there’s no tag and I can’t open it.”

An out-of-breath passenger rushes up to me waving his boarding pass. “I need to change my seat,” he huffs, “I need an aisle for my ankle.”

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“Sir, I can’t do a seat change–the agent will handle that for you. They’re down on the jet bridge now meeting the inbound flight.”

“I need to change my seat,” he repeats, as if I hadn’t spoken.

“So I called 9-1-1 on my cell phone,” the lead flight attendant continues. I assume somewhere during the seat change exchange I’d reluctantly attempted that she’d determined the black box to be a threat.

“When the airport police get there, they tell me ‘you better wash your hands, that’s a rat trap.'”

My jet’s just now trundling down the taxiway, swinging a wide arc toward the gate. I spot the nose number–it’s an older model, which means a better sun visor but a less capable radar. Always a trade-off.

“And I’m thinking, this trap’s heavy–is it full of rats? Are there a lot of small ones, or just a couple big ones?”

An agent bursts through the jet bridge door and ducks behind the counter as a torrent of irritable-looking passengers rush off the plane, late for their connections.

“Are we loading this flight?” a bespectacled guy in a t-shirt and eating fries asks. I want to say we load bags, but board passengers. And boarding is when passengers crowd onto the jet; these people are stampeding off.

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“I have to go to the bathroom.” That’s my emergency go-to, for him and for the lead flight attendant who’s now ranting about the traffic snarl on her way home last night.

A business guy blocks my escape path.

“How’s the visibility in San Francisco?” he snaps, as if that was something pilots chatted about.

The voice in my head answers honestly, I have no idea. Because the current weather at a destination four hours away is irrelevant. We’ll monitor that in the last hour inbound; for now all I care about is the extra fuel I’ve already requested to give me loiter time in the air no matter what the weather is 1,300 miles hence.

“It’s fine,” I lie, stepping around him.

He holds up his cell phone. “Well, my office says there’s some fog. Better double check.”

I’ll get a man right on that, the smartass in my head blurts out, and I laugh out loud. “Will do,” my regular voice answers. I point to the men’s room as a way of excusing myself.

Then I melt into the swirling tide of bags and people, walking determinedly: as with stray dogs, avoid eye contact, which can only bring trouble. I head for Dunkin’ Donuts, which I think has the best hot chocolate and I want something hot, soothing. There’ll be a bucket of airplane coffee to glug down between here and the coast and back; you have to pace yourself.

Sigh. As usual, the easy part, the peaceful part, will be at 40,000 feet, behind a bolted-shut cockpit door. Until then, a tall hot chocolate and whatever quiet spot I can find will have to do.

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Flight Crew Reality: Travel Privileges are a Cruel Hoax

Posted in air travel, air traveler, airline, airline cartoon, airline industry, airline pilot, airline pilot blog with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 9, 2015 by Chris Manno

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Flight Crew Reality: Travel Privileges are a Cruel Hoax

There–I said it: travel privileges are a cruel hoax. If anyone is choosing an airline career based on the expectation of free air travel, you might as well start looking for a different job. Because the reality of crew life is this: airplanes are booked so full nowadays that non-rev travel is a frustrating, time-wasting ordeal that sucks the life out of days off.

It gets worse, too. In the past decade, every major airline has gone through dire financial restructuring. For flight crews, the end result is more work days per month, longer days per trip, with less off-duty rest between flights.

Bankruptcy at most major carriers resulted in the gutting of flight crew contracts, creating grueling work rules for diminished pay rates. So, we all fly more days per month at lower pay rates than ever before just to keep up.

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Most crewmembers who have been flying at least ten years accept this diminished reality, the longer days, lower pay and fewer days off. It’s the unfortunate evolution of the airline biz as it plays out in 2015 and sad as it is to see, we realize the “good old days” of easy non-rev travel, more days off, and longer rest breaks are a thing of the past.

Yes, you can still squeeze on for a few quick trips. But if you have an event to attend, a cruise or a resort prepaid, or several  people traveling with you, you’ll have to buy a ticket.

Many actually see an upside to full jets in terms of financial security for the airline issuing our pay checks. When customers drop off, and flight become less crowded, the trickle-down effect for airline employees is furloughs and pay cuts.

Heavy loads and the reduced ability to fly non-rev impacts crewmembers who commute the most, because if a flight is required for them to get from their home to their crew base, the small number of available unsold seats require them to spend even more time away from home.

There are two types of commuters–voluntary and involuntary. I feel sorry for the latter: they’re the very junior who have been displaced out of their home base due to manning cutbacks. For many, a family situation dictates that they must commute. This is a harsh, disheartening burden for them to bear, one that’s completely out of their control.

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The other type is the voluntary commuters. That is, though they may live within driving distance of a crew base, some voluntarily transfer to a base requiring a flight to get to work. They’re motivated by some perceived advantage, whether financial or other personal priority. Fine, and good luck: if I chose to commute to a more junior base like NYC or Miami, I could hold the 777 captain schedule of my choice. But I don’t, because I know the drawbacks, the wasted time, the reduced family time as a parent and spouse if I did.

Add about three times the stress, waiting and lost time with family that goes with the unprecedented high flight bookings that show no sign of relenting and the voluntary commute is less attractive than ever. Some still choose to do so, and more power to them.

Regardless, the “good old days” of easy nonrev travel and lots of free days off to pursue it are long gone. For the majority of the flight crew world, home and family responsibilities become the priority rather than leisure travel anyway after ten or fifteen years of flying. For the twenty-somethings new to the job and hoping to fly free, the full jets that make nonrev travel next to impossible are a measure of financial security they desperately need, because they’re the ones most vulnerable to furloughs if air travel demand drops off. Many would prefer the side effect of profitability–full seats–to the hazards of an airline downturn.

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Some crewmembers actually portray full aircraft and a nearly impossible pass travel situation as a plot against employees, but anyone who has been here more than ten years recalls two things that override such nonsense. First, we all remember the pay cuts, lost retirements and career stagnation of “the good old days” when air traffic was light And non-rev travel easy. And second, perhaps most important, we realize that the good old days of great layovers, long crew rest and days off are a thing of the past, permanently.

There are those who must commute and I feel sorry for them. There are those who choose to commute and I feel sorry for them, too. And there are those–including me–who wish pass travel was easier.

But those of us in the aircrew biz realize the reality of life today. If you’re tempted to take a flight crew job for the “free travel,” you’re going to be disappointed. And if you’re flying today but looking backwards to the good old days, complaining about the loss–get real: the good old days, like your nostalgic, time-aggrandized young aircrew days are gone for good. Like it or not, we’re moving on.

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What if your airline pilot falls ill in flight?

Posted in air travel, air traveler, airline, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 9, 2015 by Chris Manno

I wrote a complete explanation for Mashable–just click here for the full article.

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Airline “Scare in the Air:” Laser Mythology

Posted in air travel, airline, airline cartoon, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 29, 2015 by Chris Manno

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Airline “Scare in the Air:” Laser Mythology

Took a laser in the side of my face last night as I was hand-flying a Boeing 737-800 with 170 people on board through about 500 feet on approach. My reaction?

Shrug. No big deal.

But that’s not the way that story would appear on social media, which brings up an important question: when did Americans become so trembly-fearful of everything? Typical headlines include “horror, terror, scare” for any incident, large or small, when it comes to air travel. After turbulence, mechanical problems, or any anomaly, social media burns like a Presto Log as passengers leap to fulfill the “scare” pronouncement with their own hero story, selfie, and video.

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But it’s really much ado about nothing–especially lasers. That’s why none of the other 168 people on board last night even knew about the laser hit, denying them the opportunity to gather “likes” and “follows” with a firsthand omigod we were hit by a laser on approach “scare” story. Unaware, they simply deplaned and went home. But here’s the “laser non-scare” reality.

First, we fly near much brighter flashes, sometimes right in our face, as we pass thunderheads at night. That’s just routine. A laser, by contrast, has a fraction of the candle power and unless it’s being pointed at us head on, it’s always a sidelong, oblique flash.

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The only way possible to get the light square into my eyes would be to somehow determine my exact landing aimpoint on the runway (not possible) and stand precisely there, aiming the light perfectly into my face, but that’s even less likely: from the front, we’re a tiny target that’s changing position constantly. And the laser “aimer” would have to be standing on the exact spot where seventy tons of metal was about to plop down doing about a hundred and fifty miles per hour. That’s a Wile E. Coyote, Darwin-esque scenario and NOT a “scare in the air.”

The side shot does nothing except maybe distract the pilot for a second, but no more so than the vista out my side window when I rolled us into a left bank turning onto final approach over the Texas Rangers ballpark which was lit up like a nuclear Christmas tree 3,000 feet below. Took a glance–go Rangers!–at that as I we sliced by at 220 knots in the turn, then back to business.

The laser flash? Of course I didn’t turn to look at it and unless you do–and why would anyone besides Wile E. Coyote do that–it’s simply a non-event. Typically, the illumination lasts a second or two at most because urban legend notwithstanding, it not easy to hit a two foot square window moving at between 150 and 200 miles per hour from a half mile below.

Sorry: no scare in the air. Thanks for flying with us. But like the recent hype about “drone danger,” social media will have to look elsewhere for the next “there I was” panic scenario. Laser illumination of the cockpit in flight not worth mentioning.

Airline PAs: Can we talk?

Posted in air travel, air traveler, airline, airline cartoon, airline cartoon book, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, flight crew with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 7, 2015 by Chris Manno

About the aircraft PA: let’s talk.

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When you’re an airline captain, you have to figure out how to talk meaningfully and concisely to a hundred or so passengers over the aircraft PA. That virtually one-on-one contact is an excellent opportunity reassure and inform the paying customers as they experience the marquee product: air travel.

Yet so many captains fall short, squandering this excellent marketing opportunity. Here’s what I mean.

Mostly, we’re pilots first and foremost, so we’ve had little training or experience addressing the public. You can almost hear the discomfort from the first PA on taxi-out. Typically, it’s a clumsy version of “Welcome aboard [insert airline] flight [insert number], service to [insert destination]. We are next for departure ….”

Really? Departure? We’re going to takeoff and fly; you’re the pilot, the aviator, not the “departure facilitator,” who will make this happen. “Departure,” “service” and “equipment” (pilots fly jets) are all lame parroting of the agents’ PAs in the terminal. The agents aren’t aviators–are you? Or are you an “equipment operator?”

Some of my four-stripe colleagues allege that the circumspect term “departure” is more calming for passengers, but I ask to what end, when the next thing that happens is the roar of fifty-thousand pounds of jet thrust and a headlong hurtle down the runway. Did you fool anybody, for a minute or two?
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And the first part: passengers know their destination–or if they don’t, maybe you shouldn’t tell them. Do they care about the flight number? Worst of all, “service?” As in “check under the hood, the washer fluid’s low?” Scratch the whole thing and get back to fundamentals.
On taxi out, I say the required, “Flight attendants, prepare for takeoff.” By the book, it is what it is. On climbout, I say, “Good afternoon (or whatever it is; I don’t do early mornings without a court order) and welcome aboard, this is Captain Manno.”

Not ever, “This is your captain speaking.” Because I have a name, and it’s not “Your Captain.” Would it seem awkward if your dentist said, “This is your dentist speaking?” Your teacher? On TV, airline captains don’t have a name, because it’s fake. Real life, real name.

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The other awkward introduction on the PA is the blurted, “From the cockpit,” usually preceded by “ah,” as in “Ahhhhh, from the cockpit, folks …” Maybe I could see, “from the cockpit crew,” but that’s as disjointed as “from your dentist” or even a sermon that started out, “Ah, from the pulpit, folks …”

Probably I’m a cynic, but the used car salesman-ish, “A very pleasant good day” rankles as a PA intro. Just give me the facts and I’ll decide what kind of day it is, okay?

Enroute, the pilot jargon is clumsy: “We’re at three-nine-oh, going to four-one-oh.” Just spit it out: “We’re climbing to forty-one thousand feet.” So it goes without saying that you needn’t use the slang of “wheels up time” (really? Hope we’re off the ground) or even “ground stop;” passengers start forming their own expectation of how long until take-off (not departure–we already left the gate) which may vary from the simple facts you could have cited: “We estimate that we’ll be airborne in approximately _____ minutes, although that may change. We’ll keep you informed.”

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And then I set a timer for 15 minutes, then make an update PA even if I have no new info. Just the basic contact, “We’re estimating ____more minutes, thanks for your patience, we’ll keep you posted.”

But god forbid, neither humor or sarcasm is smart, although some try. The problem is, anything that’s “funny” to one person is guaranteed to anger or offend one of the other 170 on board, especially when they’re under travel stress and unhappy about the inevitable delays, the crowding, the discomfort. I know that when I deadhead or fly on my days off that delays screw me into the ceiling–“comedy,” or any attempt, is just one more annoyance on top of many. So just stick to the facts, in a calm voice, and be sure to make regular contact.

When I’m in the passenger cabin listening to a PA, I’m the “Wizard of Ahhhs,” counting: after the third “ah,” passengers might wonder if you’re all there–and you’re probably not. If you are trying to listen to the air traffic control frequency and the emergency radio frequency as you make a PA, you’ll sound like the harried mom with a toddler squawking, the TV on, while trying to talk on the phone.
Give the route of flight in layman’s terms: “Pocket City” is aviation speak for Evansville, Indiana, where billiards are made, but will that mean anything to passengers? And please don’t end with the withering “and on into the ______ airport;” the double preposition will cause an aneurysm in anyone over fifty, plus it makes you sound like Gomer Pyle. Toggle down all the other audio channels and just give the facts, concisely, consistently and without ahhhhs.

My standard PA goes like this: “We’re heading just about due [east, west, whatever] and we’ll pass over _____, _______, ________, and _______ where we’ll begin our descent into _______ airport, where the skies are partly cloudy [I always say that, covers everything] and the temperature is [I make up something, what it think it should be–who’s checking?]. We’re estimating our touchdown at _______ [correct time zone] and we’ll have you to the gate a few minutes after that. We’re glad to have you on board, for now we invite you to relax and enjoy the flight.”

That’s it–no ahhhs, my name instead of my job title (your captain), no cutesy (we had a goofball who blew a train whistle on the PA and said, “Allllll aboarrrd!”) stuff and no comedy attempts that will eventually boomerang.
The captive audience is listening and it’s a tough house: they’re crammed into their seats, often jetlagged, tired, hungry and impatient with delays and just the general hassle that is air travel today. You’re not playing a movie role, recasting your remembrance of Hollywood depictions. Make it clear, concise and soft spoken. With any luck, they won’t remember you or anything you said the next day.
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Your Flight is Running Late? Not So Fast.

Posted in air travel, air traveler, airline, airline cartoon book, airline delays, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot blog, airlines with tags , , , , , , , on August 28, 2015 by Chris Manno

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When I was a Check Airman for my airline, supervising new captains on their first flights in the left seat, I always did one thing consistently over a three day trip: about twenty miles from landing, I’d cover the fuel gages with my hand and ask, “How much fuel do you have?”

What does that have to do with your flight running late? Everything.

And here’s where the passenger in a time crunch and the pilot-in-command part ways: time, speed and fuel.

They’re interrelated and while we both share the goal of getting there, the pilots need to “get there” with as much fuel as possible. That’s because more fuel means more flying time available, which means more options. So by day three of my trip with a new captain, he always knew how much fuel–and thus flight time–he had available, because he (or she) knew I’d ask. After over 24 years as captain at the world’s largest airline, that’s a habit pattern I personally maintain to this day: fuel is time, and my job is to wring as much time as possible out of every drop of fuel on board.

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No, that doesn’t mean I want to fly as long as possible–I want to be able to fly as long as possible. Big difference, but the reality is, if I don’t have fuel in reserve, I don’t have time in reserve either, and both are crucial in case of delays due to weather, peak air traffic volume and even mechanical anomalies. And that’s just in the terminal area on arrival.

Enroute, there could be more weather we need to fly around safely (more miles–and fuel–burned) plus, the optimum altitude might not be available or, if it is, there may be a dissimilar aircraft ahead for whom we’ll be speed-restricted, causing us to burn more fuel. Throw in the frequent Air Traffic Control reroute or off-course spacing vector, and you have a significant potential for fuel over burn above the planned consumption.

On a flight of more than three hours, even a 10% fuel over burn can significantly limit a pilot’s options on arrival: can I hold for weather and traffic congestion, and for how long, before I have to divert?

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Add more air miles–and thus more fuel burn–to stay safely upwind of storms.

So we have the potential for weather and traffic delays, altitude restrictions and even mandatory re-routing by Air Traffic Control, all of which can and typically do eat away at our fuel reserves. These limiting factors can pop up at any time after takeoff and the fact is, there’s no more fuel to be had at that point, leaving you one option--save as much as possible enroute. Which means the highest, optimum altitude at the most economical speed.

Ironically, Air Traffic Control may even need you to fly a faster than optimum speed for a long stretch of time in order to equalize traffic flow, and you’d better have enough fuel to comply but still maintain your fuel reserves for arrival regardless.

Juxtapose that reality with the option of flying “faster to make up time.” First, a jet is not like your car–if you push the speed up ten percent, depending on your altitude, your fuel consumption may go up during the higher speed cruise by 20-30%. But how much time would you make up? Over a three hour flight, maybe ten minutes at most. Is that worth blowing all of your options, especially knowing that destination areas delays could wipe that out anyway? Is it prudent to fly hellbent-for-leather to shave off a fraction of the delay at the cost of having zero options once you get there?image

Fuel and time: the buck stops here.

The answer, of course, is no, it doesn’t make sense to “speed up to make up time.” Believe me, no one wants to finish the flight any sooner than the working crew, but never at the expense of what we know lies ahead, and therefore, what makes sense.

Certainly, you can ask the pilots to “fly fast,” but the result will be predictable no matter what you may hear.

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Airliners in Weather: What the Hail?

Posted in air travel, airline cartoon, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airline safety, aviation weather with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 13, 2015 by Chris Manno

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Recently, a Boeing 787 and an Airbus 320 made headlines with dramatic photos of hail damage to the radomes and leading edges of the airfoils. That type of news story prompts the question from friends, family and passengers, “Can’t pilots see hail coming?”

My answer is threefold: yes, no, and it’s not that simple. Let’s take each part in order.

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On a normal flight, the above outside view would be depicted like this on a cockpit nav display:

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The magenta line is our filed flight path–where Air Traffic Control (ATC) expects us to be. To simplify for the sake of brevity, green areas are precipitation, red, convection, meaning uplifting air.

So yes, we can often see it coming because we know that convection can heave massive amounts of moisture upward with great force, into altitudes where the temperature could easily be -35C or less. This flash-freezes the moisture into ice pellets, with the size determined by variables of speed and temperature. I’ve felt and heard the sizzling sound of such particles impinging on my aircraft at over 40,000 feet–they’re fairly tiny and mostly innocuous at high altitude–not so in the lower, denser air.

Regardless, here’s where the “no” of my tripartite answer comes in. Like the ill-advised New Year’s Eve tradition some gun owners have of celebratory fire, what goes straight up comes back down–but the question is, where?

An enormous volume of hail spewed from the top of a thunderhead will get caught up in the winds aloft and they vary from near zero to over 100 mph. It’s not unusual for wind to blow a hail storm ten or more miles from the core of the thunderhead that lifted the moisture in the first place.

At night, the lightning may be obvious, but storm contours are not.

At night, the lightning may be obvious, but storm contours are not.

Can an you see that on radar? Maybe. Normally, you have the radar looking ahead, not up. What was a clear path, suddenly may be filled with hail, even miles away from the original source.

Which brings me to “it’s not that simple.” Both of the recent hail damage incidents occurred at low altitude, and by that I mean below 20,000 feet, which is a complicated area: jetliners don’t cruise that low, so the airspace is filled with a conflicting mix of climbing and descending aircraft. ATC does a fantastic job of sorting the mix crammed into often constrained airspace. But the problem is, that doesn’t leave much room for deviating around weather.

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In fact, with so many aircraft being managed on a particular frequency, it’s extremely difficult to even get a course change request to ATC. Add to that a ground speed often between 200 and 300 miles per hour and you have a dilemma: yes, you can see some weather threats, no, you can’t see all of them and avoiding weather and other jets in crowded airspace is simply put, not easy. Things change rapidly, virtually by the minute, and we’ll cover many miles in that time.

I can’t stress enough how versatile and responsive ATC is in managing tight airspace filled with dissimilar aircraft on assorted routes and changing altitudes. But as the mix becomes more dense, this high-speed Rubik’s becomes an outlandishly devilish puzzle.

In the cockpit, know that we’re using every means at our disposal to detect and track weather. We gauge the wind effect out of the top of a storm, we plot a course upwind of effects, we pass along what we’ve found to ATC and other aircraft.  Count on the reality that everyone on the ground and in the air is doing everything possible to avoid or, in the worst case, escape from bad weather.

Even the fact that only two aircraft out of the thousands in flight that day made the news with hail damage is good news in itself: pilots and ATC are pretty good at handling weather. Still, there’s only so much room and little leeway to detect and avoid hail.

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That’s the real news, and the good news far outweighs the bad: flying to Philly yesterday, I can’t compliment both ATC and the dozens of other pilots in the air for sharing information about clear passages, turbulence and new routings. I don’t know how Center and Approach do it, but the responsiveness and quick reaction is amazing.

I’m especially grateful that my airline has made installation of cutting edge radar technology in my cockpit a priority: yes, it’s expensive, but they want me to have the best, most current weather picture as I approach a front with you on board.

Our newest radar–which I’m glad to have available–displays three dimensions, is linked to our nav system so it always knows exactly where it is and thus screens out ground clutter and geographic features, and displays a predictive movement of hazards. It’s always on, scanning for potential problems and will pop up on cockpit displays if it detects something even if we’ve selected another depiction.

So there you have it. Yes, no, and it’s complicated–those are my answers to the question, “Can’t you see hail from the cockpit?” The big-picture view is that we’re all working together to stay out of the headlines. I’ll be flying to LaGuardia and back tomorrow and the fact that you WON’T read about my flight underscores everything I’ve just said.

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