Archive for the airline Category

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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“The Best Of” Airline Cartoons

Posted in air travel, air travel humor, air traveler, airline, airline cartoon, airline passenger, airline pilot, flight attendant, flight crew, passenger with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 2, 2020 by Chris Manno

Are you a pilot, flight attendant or passenger missing the good old air travel world that is only now creeping back from the screeching halt of demand that’s grounded most flights? Looking forward to getting back into the sky? Well, here’s a cartoon glimpse at what we’re all missing. Enjoy.

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Nowadays, people seem to judge others more than ever, questioning why anyone’s flying–ignoring the fact that they are too. And it even looks different today.

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The airport itself is open, but the concessions are mostly a ghost town.

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Crewmembers can expect enhanced security screening.

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Boarding is much less crowded.

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Inflight, it’s much the same as ever.

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The pandemic is a factor, but there are differences.

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After your flight, please remember:

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And know that your crew is waiting to welcome you back aboard.

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Want to get a firsthand, behind the scenes look at crew life? Here’s your chance to live the airline crew life:

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It’s Amazon Books’ #1 new release in Commercial Aviation: an insider, firsthand story of flying from years as an Air Force pilot, then into the cockpits of the world’s largest airline for over three decades of flying, most as captain, around the country and the world. You’ll live the cockpit experience firsthand, fly the trips, the aircraft, the approaches and more.

Get your copy from Amazon Books in Kindle or paperback format.

Just CLICK HERE.

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Flying Story: Read It NOW.

Posted in action-adventure, air travel, airline, aviation with tags , , , , , , on April 1, 2020 by Chris Manno

If you have hours of time with nothing to do but worry, why not take a flight of fancy?

Same pilots, different setting: now, versus back in our USAF days.

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Left to right, that’s Animal Hauser, wide-body captain; Chip, me, and the Coke, all narrow-body captains. It was a long road from the Air Force to the airlines. It wasn’t always easy, but most of it was fun and all of it memorable. You can climb into the cockpit with us as we all earned our USAF wings.

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Then onto the airlines after the Air Force, and you’ll be there every step of the way. Here’s where we are today:

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Left to right: me, Father-O, Coke, Chip, and Animal–the actual guys in the book:

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Part one is available now from Kindle here, part two and the full paperback will be available very soon from Amazon Books.

Why wait? Get yours today. Live the story, take the ride; enjoy the real thing: An Airline Pilot’s Story.

Amazon Books Rated #1 New Release in Commercial Aviation

 

 

Here’s Your Chance to Fly With These Guys

Posted in air traveler, airline, airline pilot, airline pilot blog with tags , , , , , , , , on March 27, 2020 by Chris Manno

Fly with these guys, I dare you. I did–in fact, that’s me, fourth from the left, standing. The “official” USAF photographer had taken the required group photo, then we as The Wolfpack reverted to our original, crude, f*ck this nonsense attitude.

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The details and the people above–including Coke, Beldar, Ruff, Animal, Pulsar, Kirb, Dorf, Landshark, and more fly in vivid detail on these pages:

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In this first Kindle installment, you’ll start flying in a Cessna and end up solo and supersonic in a T-38. Then, it’s off to the Pacific in two different USAF squadrons as a pilot. You’ll live Amazon’s #1 rated aviation new release in full detail: the missions, the pilots, the adventures, squadron life and more.

Then, in May, part two will be pushed to your Kindle and you’ll step into the cockpit of the world’s largest airline, as copilot and quickly, as a captain for decades of airline flying in a multitude of jets.

The paperback will be released in May, but why wait? Climb aboard now and let’s fly.

Order your Kindle copy from Amazon for only $9.99 HERE.

What are you waiting for? Strap in, and let’s fly.

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“An Airline Pilot’s Life” is Amazon’s #1 Aviation New Release!

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

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Reserve your Kindle copy by pre-ordering here.

Your copy will be sent to your device in two parts, the first half delivered on March 21, the final half on June 2. Simply set your Kindle device preferences to receive updates and you’ll receive the entire Kindle book for $9.99 (paperback will be $19.99).

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Pre-Order “An Airline Pilot’s Life”

Posted in air travel, airline, airline pilot with tags , , , , , , , , on March 2, 2020 by Chris Manno

Here’s your early opportunity to pre-order this first-person, real life account:

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An insider-view from an airline cockpit: you’re in the captain’s-eye view, from USAF flying all over the Pacific and Asia, to over three decades in the cockpits of the world’s largest airline, most as captain.

Live the life, an airline pilot’s life, firsthand.

Get your Kindle copy delivered March 21 from Amazon Books.

To pre-order your copy, CLICK HERE.

 

 

Sneak Preview: “An Airline Pilot’s Life.”

Posted in air travel, airline, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airport, aviation, crewlife, pilot with tags , , , , , on February 2, 2020 by Chris Manno

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Here’s an excerpt from the true story, An Airline Pilot’s Life, scheduled for release in March from Dark Horse Books. This story puts you in the captain’s seat in the cockpit of the world’s largest airline.

In this excerpt, you’ll fly what turned out to be a hair-raising approach into a lifelong lesson you–and every pilot–will never forget. The book will be available on Amazon.com next month. Now, strap in and let’s fly.

 

Chapter __

“Maintain two thousand till established, cleared back course localizer runway three-two, contact tower,” the approach controller said in a bored monotone.

Ahead, the McAllen Airport crept onto my map display. My FO read back the instructions, then checked in with the tower.

“American 1410, you’re cleared to land runway three-two,” the tower controller said. “Previous arrival reported patchy fog over the south end of the field.”

That was the problem with McAllen Airport: they only had a non-precision approach—the back course localizer—for landing north. The descent minimums were much higher than on a precision approach, which meant if we didn’t see the runway at a higher altitude, we couldn’t land.

A precision approach like a Cat 2 would let us descend to a hundred feet, at which point we’d likely see the runway. We’d just flown a Cat 2 approach on a Charlotte turn before the McAllen flight due to fog in Charlotte. We were ready to do the same at McAllen, but the precision approach was only from the north end, and that approach would have a tailwind that was beyond our American Airlines limitations.

I’d called the dispatcher before we left DFW to discuss the runway conundrum: the only sure bet was a precision approach. But, as was typical of McAllen weather, the fog usually blew by in waves. If we were lucky, we’d reach the runway in a gap in the clouds. If not, we’d just go missed-approach and divert to our alternate. We’d planned to carry plenty of fuel for that.

After I talked with the dispatcher, I spoke with another captain, a former AirCal pilot I knew from my merger work a few years earlier.

“Yeah,” Steve said, shaking his head, “Fog in the Rio Grande Valley. We’re headed to Harlingen and the same low viz.”

“Well,” I said, “What’s your alternate? We’ll see you there.”

We both laughed, then filed out of Flight Operations for our departure gates.

After the approach clearance, I pressed the arming buttons for the Cat 2 approach, then glanced at the FMS (Flight Management System) “Progress Fuel Prediction” readout. I always did that when cleared for the approach to decide what our options were if we couldn’t land and went missed-approach. Options were all about fuel, which determined flying time available.

We were way ahead on fuel, meaning, we had much more than we needed to complete the approach, fly the missed approach and divert to our alternate and still land with extra fuel.

Knowing that the visibility at McAllen would improve and degrade in cycles, I believed we’d have enough fuel for a second approach, if we wanted to do that. Or, we could simply divert after the first unsuccessful. I wondered what Steve was doing on his approach into Harlingen, where the weather always seemed to match McAllen. That was why we chose San Antonio for an alternate rather than Harlingen, and so did Steve.

“Looking at the fuel,” I said cross cockpit and I pointed at the FMS fuel prediction, “We have enough fuel for a second approach, with clearance on request to San Antonio on the missed approach. Are you comfortable with that?”

“Comfortable” was the key word: not “okay,” which to me meant I can stand it but I don’t like it. “Comfortable” meant my FO felt there was no worries in the idea. And he agreed.

“In the event of a missed approach,” my FO told the tower, “We’d like vectors to a second approach, with clearance on request to San Antonio afterward.”

“I’ll relay that to approach,” the tower controller said.

As we neared our descent minimums, there was no telltale lightness or gaps in the fog—just depthless gray. I executed the published missed approach and as we climbed past the departure end, the fog vanished. We’d been a minute too early for the fog bank to blow by, but that was encouraging nonetheless because we’d possibly catch the gap on the next approach.

I glanced down at the fuel prediction once again before committing to the approach and also checked with my FO.

“Are you okay with another approach?” I asked. “We could just bail out to San Antonio now. It’s no big deal.”

But he agreed: we had enough fuel to fly this second approach, go missed-approach and fly to San Antonio and still land with extra fuel.

But, at the minimum altitude, we were still in thick gray fog. Again I executed the missed approach and my FO told tower, “We’re ready for clearance to San Antonio.”

The tower controller acknowledged the request and told us that departure controller was ready with that clearance.

We switched frequencies and as we climbed to our enroute divert altitude, the FO made contact with departure control.

“Climb and maintain ten thousand feet,” the departure controller said.

That would have to change. We’d planned a much higher cruise altitude to ensure a minimal fuel burn. With the ten thousand foot cruise altitude set in the FMS, the fuel prediction showed us to land with less than planned fuel.

Then the same laconic voice on departure control frequency stabbed me in the heart.

“Be advised that San Antonio is calling their ceiling and visibility zero,” he droned. “They’re not accepting arrivals. State your intentions.”

Just like that, we were instantly screwed and I knew it. The fog had rolled up the Rio Grande valley much faster than our weather shop and dispatch had predicted. I desperately needed that two thousand pounds of fuel we’d burned on the second McAllen approach, but it was long gone. And if we’d left those fifteen minutes earlier, we might have made it into San Antonio. There was no one to blame but myself, because I’d made the decision to fly that second approach.

“How’s the Austin ceiling and viz?” I asked the controller. Less than fifty miles more flying beyond San Antonio. If we could get a higher altitude, we might conserve enough fuel to land in Austin with an uncomfortably low fuel total, but what were the options?

“Their ceiling and viz are dropping rapidly,” the controller said. “You’d better plan minimum time enroute.”

We coordinated a higher altitude but the fuel prediction still showed a frightfully low fuel total at Austin—if we beat the fog rolling up from the south.

I’d failed Cecil’s second dictum, “Know when to get the hell out of Dodge.” If we couldn’t land in Austin, the next option was Waco almost a hundred miles north. That arrival fuel total would be horrifying, if we even made it that far at all. I’d relied too heavily on the FMS technology and not enough on my instinct, which usually was, there’s nothing you’re going to see on a second approach that you didn’t see on the first. Just get the hell out of town. The MD-80 didn’t even have a fuel prediction function.

There was no panic in the cockpit, though we both knew instantly what we were up against. There was just intense concentration, with an ample side order of tension.

We climbed into the twenties, then I had another critical decision to make. Do I pull the power back to an endurance speed that burned minimal fuel? That would add time to our transit, which could mean the difference between landing before the relentless fog bank swallowed up the field and having to race further north.

The longer we waited, the cooler the evening air would become, and that was the insidious culprit: the fog wasn’t really “moving north” so much as the temperature-dew point spread was diminishing as the sun set. When it reached zero, there’d be fog, from the surface to at least a thousand feet.

It was an all-in bet, keeping the engine power high to minimize enroute time, albeit at the expense of arrival fuel. The new landing fuel prediction was about half of what I’d normally accept, but the minimal time gave us at least a fighting chance to fly the approach and find the runway at descent minimums.

We entered a long, shallow descent toward the Austin airport. I held the speed at two-hundred-fifty until just about twenty miles out, then we “threw out all the shit,” as Coker would say, dropping the gear, the boards and the speedbrakes to slow to approach speed. We broke out of the overcast well above minimums, which was a huge relief, then I flew her to a normal touchdown.

I don’t recall ever being so glad to slow a jet to taxi speed as I was that night. It had been a hell of a day, a long one at that, including three Cat 2 approaches, two go-arounds and a divert at emergency fuel levels.

The passengers never knew the ugly details, other than what should have been just over an hour of flying time turning into nearly three, plus ending up in Austin instead of McAllen. Nor did the flight attendants, really. There was no point telling either of them, as far as I could see.

I told the agent we’d need crew hotel rooms for the night, because we were done. We’d been on duty for twelve hours and besides that strain, the uncertainty of the Austin divert left both of us in the cockpit fried.

The agent invited me inside to operations where the dispatcher was on the line.

“Captain,” said a female voice I didn’t recognize. She must have taken over the shift from the original dispatcher. “We’re going to refuel you, then you’ll fly the passengers back to DFW.”

“No,” I said. “That’s a bad idea. We’re both done for the night.”

“We need you to fly these passengers back to DFW.”

“That’s not a good idea, so, no.”

“Are you refusing a direct order from dispatch?”

She must be new, I thought to myself.

“Call it whatever you want,” I said. “We are done and we’re going to the hotel. Don’t call me back—I’ll be in crew rest. We’ll be ready tomorrow after we’ve had a decent night’s sleep.”

Then I hung up the phone. The next morning, I got a call from Doug Anderson, the DFW Chief who’d recommended I try the F-100. He listened carefully, then said he agreed with my decision, even ending the day in Austin, and supported me one hundred percent. That was typical: whether it was Doug, or Zane lemon after him, I never had anything but full support from the DFW Flight Office.

When I mentioned to Doug the shockingly low fuel we had left after landing, he simply said, “I’ve landed with less.”

I rounded up the crew and we ferried the jet back to DFW empty. On the very quiet, short and routine flight home, I added an addendum to Cecil’s “get out of town advice.” There’d be no multiple approaches, at least not without holding for a significant time to allow conditions to improve. Back-to-back Cat 2 or 3s? Right then and from then on, I’d just get the hell out of Dodge.

Look for An Airline Pilot’s Life in paperback and Kindle format on Amazon next month!

cover 12-26-2019

 

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