Archive for the airliner Category

Air Travel, De-Icing and Delays: The Real Deal.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline delays, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airline safety, airliner, airliner take off with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 1, 2015 by Chris Manno

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Network news media love a screaming headline, even if they have to fudge the facts to suit the rhetoric. But here is the reality behind the wailing and gnashing of teeth regarding recent ice-related delays at major airports: the airlines did a damn good job given the challenges heaped on them in this storm.

As a captain, I flew a 737 trip in the middle of the week in the slush and snow out of DFW. Here is your chance to bypass the media frenzy (NBC News carefully crafted “9 hour delay for passengers”–quietly admitting later that it wasn’t on-board) and watch the flight evolve despite the weather interference.

At 06:10, a phone call from crew schedule woke me up. I had volunteered to fly a trip that day and they offered one, a turn to John Wayne Orange County (SNA) scheduled to depart at 10:10. I agreed to fly the trip.

Normally, it takes me 35 minutes to drive to DFW. I left my house at 6:45 to allow extra time for the slush and snow snarling the highways.

I arrived at DFW an hour later, an hour and twenty minutes early. The jet was parked at the gate, had been all night in the freezing precip, so I went aboard and started powering up systems. A quick check of the wings and fuselage confirmed what I assumed driving in: we’ll need a good de-icing on the wings, control surfaces and fuselage.

Let’s get more specific about aircraft icing. First, we need to remove the accumulated ice. Second, we need to prevent more ice from re-forming on aircraft surfaces. De-icing can be accomplished by a number of different fluids under pressure. “Anti-icing” is provided by a different, specifically designed fluid that chemically inhibits the adherence of ice on aircraft surfaces.

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In our case, the ceiling was low and visibility limited by ice fog, confirming the critical temperature-dew point spread that leads to condensation which of course would freeze on any cold surface. That means both de-ice and anti-ice will be required.

Anti-ice fluid effectiveness varies with temperature, and rate and type of precipitation. The duration of anti-ice protection declines as various forms of moisture increase. So, gauging the time–called “holdover time”–is a call that must be made by the flight crew based on observation of conditions actually occurring.

You can tell when anti-ice fluid has been applied to a jet because it will be colored either brick red-ish or lime green. The intensity of the color cues the cockpit crew as to the fluids declining effectiveness–it fades as the fluid loses the ability to inhibit icing. We actually check visually that from inside the aircraft prior to takeoff.

A side note about the fluid color. Most airlines now use the green fluid because the red was difficult to distinguish from hydraulic fluid as it dripped from crevices and bays on the aircraft, sometimes several flights downline from the original de-icing treatment. I learned long ago how to differentiate the two: propylene glycol, the main ingredient in anti-icing fluid, smells and tastes sweet. Skydrol hydraulic fluid is bitter. Yes, I’ve tasted both in the thirty years (and counting) I’ve been flying jets and laugh if you want, but it saves all aboard a needless and probably lengthy maintenance delay.

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Another unseen complication that adds to the icing mix is jet fuel. The worst case is with fuel remaining in wing tanks after a flight at high altitude. The fuel in the tanks become super cold due to the temperature at altitude (often -50C or less) and as a result, the wing surfaces both upper and lower are super-chilled, causing any moisture in the air to freeze on contact. Explain that to the guy sitting next to you griping as we de-ice on a sunny, clear day: humidity plus ice-cold metal surfaces can add up to wing icing that must be removed: we can tolerate no more than 1/8″ of mere frost on the underside of the wing only. Any other airfoil contamination must be removed before flight.

Clear ice on wings is not easy to see from the cabin, particularly the area near the wing root, which is critical on aircraft with tail mounted engines like the MD-80 and -717, because upon wing flex as rotation and liftoff occur, any wing root ice that breaks loose into the slipstream could easily fly back along the fuselage to be ingested by either or both engines, with potentially disastrous results.

So why don’t aircraft have heated wing surfaces? Actually, most MD-80 upper wing surfaces do have an electrically heated thermal blanket on top of the inboard-most portion of the wing surface. But, not the curved wing root joint which is not visible from the cabin. So, you’ll notice a lot of MD-80 aircraft having to de-ice in even the slightest icing conditions.

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In our case, I knew the fuel pumped aboard for our flight would have the opposite effect. At DFW, the fuel is stored underground and pumped aboard from a hydrant, not a truck. The effect would be to warm, not freeze the wing surfaces. That would help with de-icing, but we’d still require a thorough dose of Type-2 de-icing fluid to clean ice off the jet.

By 9:10, the official crew check-in time, there was no sign of a first officer. I started the process of printing a flight release and agreeing on a fuel burn, as well as the complex process of determining takeoff speeds, made more complicated due to the presence of slush and snow on the runway. Any type of contamination, from pooled water to slush to ice can impede both acceleration and deceleration. Both maximums (takeoff and stopping) must be accurately calculated and while there is a published “runway condition,” the actual calculations are very much a realtime, eyeballs-verified assessment: I’ve broken through an undercast during an ice storm as we approached DFW only to find that just the first two-thirds of the runway had been cleared–a fact not noted on the official field report. That lopped off about four thousand feet of useable braking surface.

At 9:30, forty minutes prior to pushback, still no sign of a first officer. The roads are awful, as is the traffic, so I’m not surprised and I’m glad I left home as early as I did. I called Crew Tracking, catching them by surprise as well: in this winter storm, there were plenty of stuck, stranded or missing crewmembers. They hadn’t noticed.

I resigned myself to going out into the sleet to do the exterior inspection myself, planning to have all preflight duties complete in case the first officer should show up at the last minute. Here’s an up close look at the leading edge icing:

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and the ice on the wing trailing edge:

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Engine covers were installed, a very smart preventative measure to prevent icing, but which would require maintenance removal and documentation. I radioed maintenance to get in the cue for this required maintenance and fortunately, American Airlines had well-staffed maintenance for this shift. But again, they too had technicians who, like my F/O, were stuck in the ice storm snarled traffic, slowing things down.

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With the exterior preflight complete, I requested the upload of navigation and performance data as well as our clearances. And I took a minute to call the Crew Scheduling Manager on Duty to suggest that they grab the deadheading 737 first officer sitting in row 20 and reassign him to fly the trip. He said if the duty legality limits worked, that’s what he’d do.

By 10:00, the conscripted first officer was in the right seat, having agreed to the reassignment: he’d fly the leg to the west coast, his home base, and rather than going home, he’d also fly the leg back to DFW and only then deadhead home, if possible. Just one more crewmember going the extra mile to make the flight operation work.

We pushed back nearly on time (10:21 vs. 10:10) , but the ramp was congested with ice and slush, slowing everyone down even further. The precip had stopped, the ceiling had lifted to a thousand feet and the temperature-dew point spread had widened, all of which meant less chance of ice formation. Our holdover time would expand, allowing us to de-ice on the ramp rather than at the end of the runway. Essentially, that made for a shorter wait for all aircraft: if there is freezing precip, or any precip in freezing temps, all de-icing would have to be done at the end of the runway, meaning long takeoff delays.

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Taxiing a seventy-five ton tricycle on ice and slush is tricky, requiring slower speeds and a critical energy management: too slow and you’ll have to add excessive power to restart movement, slinging ice and slush at other aircraft. But you also need almost zero forward inertia to maintain nose gear traction in any turn, aided by asymmetric braking on the main gear into the turn. It’s a dicey operation that takes extra time.

We kept the flaps retracted on taxi-out so as to not accumulate any slush or freezing water on the underside of the flaps, a potential problem during flap retraction. Our miles-long taxi from the east side terminal to the west side runway gave us plenty of time to assess the surface conditions and fine-tune our power and speed plans.

We finally lifted off nearly fifty minutes after taxi-out. Through route shortcuts and favorable winds, we made up some of the lost time, arriving twenty-eight minutes behind schedule.

I believe my flight was more typical of all flights during an unrelenting ice storm, but mine isn’t the one craftily worded into a horror story by the media. Regardless, the fact is that icing makes flight operations complex, difficult and challenging. Yet more flight operated in the same way mine did–slow, careful, successful–than the media version of a few unfortunate cases. I take it as a compliment that the reality of these winter flights was a success story leaving the media very few flights to turn into their typically overblown horror stories.

By the time I got home nearly fourteen hours after voluntarily accepting the challenging flight assignment, the network news was already sensationalizing the “impossible” travel situation created by SnoMIGOD 2015 which dumped an unprecedented amount of snow and ice on DFW and Dallas Love Field. At least I knew the facts were not as they’d have us believe–and now you do too.

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Air Travel Mythology: The “Aborted Landing”

Posted in air travel, airline cartoon, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot blog, airline safety, airliner, fear of flying, flight crew, jet flight with tags , , , , , , on February 17, 2015 by Chris Manno

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Air a Travel Mythology: The “Aborted Landing”

In social settings, I never bring up the fact that I’ve been an airline pilot at a major carrier since 1985. Because when I do, the mythology springs forth: tales of “harrowing” flights, near disasters, plus lost luggage (not my department anyway).

The flight myth most typical is, in passenger-speak, something like this: “We were about two feet off the ground when the pilot ‘gunned it’ and we shot straight up.” Gunned it?

Ah yes: the go-around, as we call it. We don’t call it “aborted landing” and in fact, until we get on the runway it’s not a landing anyway. Even after touchdown, the only option other than stopping is a “rejected landing,” which is a methodical procedure to get back into the air safely.

The main point is this: all of these options are planned for, procedurally set out and practiced, and in a nutshell–not a big deal.

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Here are the facts, step by step, of a missed approach.

First, the urban legend needs revision. From an airline pilot standpoint–and this is the airline philosophy, in writing–a missed approach is considered a successful approach. In other words, landing is not mandatory for a successful approach. In fact, unless all of the many restrictions upon which a landing is predicated are met, a missed approach is the desired outcome.

There are a number of reasons why a missed approach may be required and the most common reason is not the one most people think of: weather. Rather, is the more mundane issue of spacing.

More specifically, that “spacing” refers to the distance between aircraft landing and ironically, this is typically a good weather problem. In bad weather, aircraft are well-spaced by radar and further, speed is typically assigned by the air traffic controllers. On a clear day, aircraft are allowed to “see and avoid” and thus are not spaced as far apart, nor is the speed as rigidly assigned.

So, now and then one aircraft on final approach may not have enough space behind another aircraft just touching down, which could mean the first aircraft might not be off the runway before the following aircraft would touch down. That’s a no-fault situation: maybe the first aircraft needed to slow down earlier than normal, or, as at DFW today, due to construction some runway exits may be closed, requiring a longer landing rollout.

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Or, often enough, an aircraft is cleared for takeoff as you approach and they might take longer than expected to roll. That’s routine and actually, it’s their runway once they’re cleared for takeoff. So, we may need to go-around.

The pilots in the second aircraft can see the spacing problem develop and there may be a few things that can help: you could slow to your final approach speed–but I also consider the plane behind ours and how that affects his spacing on our aircraft.

My rule of thumb is usually this: if the aircraft ahead touches down or starts takeoff roll and we’re still at 500 feet or higher, it’ll probably work out. Less? We’ll likely go-around. When we do, the process will be routine and simply, methodically by the book: smoothly add power, arrest the descent, bring up the landing flaps and their drag, retract the gear and smoothly climb to the assigned missed approach altitude and following the prescribed course.

No big deal from the cockpit, but it takes you by surprise in the cabin where you can’t see the situation developing. When power is added and the nose pitches up, the sensation in back is much more dramatic, particularly behind the wings and especially near the tail (ask any flight attendant) where the swing is more pronounced.

Sometimes the power can be overly dramatic: we have a power setting designed for a go-around, but it’s predicated on a last second escape from the lowest descent altitude on the approach–50 feet above the runway, in the Boeing 737-800 I fly. But seldom is the missed approach executed at that rock-bottom minimum, so that much power isn’t really necessary.

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Trouble is, some of the older jets like the MD-80 have autothrottles that know only to set the maximum setting if the go-around power toggle is activated. That causes a dramatic pitch up that may feel, in the words of the immortal Dr. Dole at USC Flight Safety and Accident Investigation Center, that you’re “climbing like a stripedy-ass ape.” Startling to say the least and why many pilots of those older aircraft disengage the autothrottles and manually set power on a go-around from a higher altitude.

Newer jets like the Boeing I fly today have two go-around power settings available with the autothrottles engaged, one with the maximum power response, one with a reduced, more comfortable setting.

A go-around from an approach minimum altitude is the exact same procedure, only with the full power setting, which will make the maneuver more pronounced but nonetheless, routine. That’s necessary for safety: we want maximum terrain clearance with no delay, so the exact same procedure is followed, just more aggressively due to the full computed thrust used.

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When I see the need for a go-around developing, the first thing I do is talk to the other pilot, getting us both ready to execute the litany of steps if need be. If we’re down to the approach minimums, there’s really nothing to discuss: we execute the standard go-around maneuver.

Traffic problems and spacing are the usual reasons for a go-around, but there may be the occasional go-around due to weather minimums. There’s no “gunning it” or fire-walling the throttles like in the Hollywood depictions, just a methodical and prompt setting of the required engine thrust and an arrested descent, then climb.

In either case, don’t expect to hear much from me on the PA, because in a go-around both pilots need to focus on flying: the altitude, the procedural track, the aircraft configuration and speed. If we’re going around due to weather minimums, we’ll also likely be setting up the navigation and securing the clearances to divert; if not, we need to get re-sequenced back into the landing pattern. None of that on a two man crew works well solo, which is what a PA would require.

So I’ll get to it when and if I can. If not, explain all this to the guy next to you, and relax. Because now you know a go-around is just routine.

More questions about air travel and your flight? Here are the answers:

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Flying an Airliner After an Engine Failure on Takeoff

Posted in air travel, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airline safety, airliner, airliner take off, airlines, fear of flying, flight crew, flight training, GE 235, jet flight, passenger, TransAsia crash with tags , , , , , , , , on February 7, 2015 by Chris Manno

Flying an Airliner After an Engine Failure on Takeoff

I get asked this question a lot as an airline captain: can an airliner survive an engine failure on takeoff? The answer is, yes and no.
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Here’s the “yes” part of that: every multi-engine airliner in service today is designed and certified to continue a takeoff after an engine failure and fly on one engine, provided that the performance limitations are not exceeded and the correct single engine procedures are followed exactly.

Which brings us to the “no” part: if performance and control limitations are exceeded, or incorrect remedial procedures applied, chances of a successful single-engine takeoff and climb are slim at best.

Here’s a close look at the variables. First, the performance limits. Can an airliner execute a normal passenger flight with just one engine? From brake release? Of course not. What it can do is continue a takeoff if an engine fails with one inflexible limit: you must have achieved the correct minimum speed prior to the engine failure in order to successfully continue the take-off with only the remaining engine(s).

That speed is called Critical Engine Failure Speed (CEFS). To be exact, CEFS is the minimum speed you must have attained with all engines in order to successfully accelerate to takeoff speed after an engine failure, and then within the runway remaining, lift off and and cross the departure end of the runway at an height of at least 35 feet.

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Stopping with a failed engine is a whole different discussion, to be addressed in a future blog. For now, consider the engine failure and the takeoff being continued. If we have met or exceeded the CEFS, we will continue the takeoff which is critical to down-line obstacle clearance.

The go-no go speed is called “V-1,” which is simply “Velocity 1,” the decision speed on takeoff roll: if you’ve attained V-1, you’re able to fly. If you’re at V-1, unless you’ve started braking, you’re committed to flight because you may not be able to stop within the remaining runway.

For me, life becomes easier at V-1: we can, and will, fly. That’s what the jet (and I) was intended to do–the thought of bringing tons of hurtling metal and fuel to a stop in the remaining runway is not appealing to me. In fact, I need less aircraft systems to fly than I do to stop, including no blown tires, operative anti-skid and spoilers. In that split second abort decision, how can I be sure I haven’t lost an electrical system that would inactivate the anti-skid, or a hydraulic system that could affect the spoilers, or a blown tire that would take out 25% of my braking–and maybe cause a wheel well fire?

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The answer is, I can’t be sure, but I can fly with every one of those components inoperative, and to a pilot, flying a sick jet is preferable to wrestling a sick multi-ton high speed tricycle to a stop. So we fly, if we can do that safely.

My discussion from here pertains to the Boeing 737-890 aircraft I fly, but I would add that all airliners are certified to this same performance standard. Procedures vary, but the single engine performance standards are similar.

So in the event of an engine failure beyond CEFS, at rotate speed we will rotate normally and begin our obstacle clearance climb. This is where crew action is critical.

The first indication of an engine failure in the cockpit will typically be a yawing motion due to the imbalance of thrust between engines. Whether that occurs on the runway or, more likely, in the air, the response is the same: add as much rudder as is required to slew the nose back to normal flight. That’s critical for two reasons. First, the runway clear zone (the area over which you must fly) extends forward from the runway centerline. If you curve laterally away from the centerline, you lose the obstacle clearance protection of the runway clear zone.

Second, the correct amount of rudder eliminates the need for aileron use, which comes at a price: if enough aileron is input, wing spoilers will deploy, inducing drag. This is crucial because drag limits the climb capability which is a defined gradient required to attain obstacle clearance altitude.

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So here’s the “yes” part again: if the aircraft weight is within prescribed limits, if the correct speed is maintained and the specified climb gradient is flown, and the lateral ground track of protected airspace is tracked, then yes, the takeoff and climb-out is certified to be successful.

Do we, in the event of an engine failure, add power on the remaining engine? Generally, no. Why not? First, because the calculated takeoff power setting is designed to be sufficient to allow a single engine takeoff and climb after an engine failure. Yes, more thrust is available and if you need it, you use it. Our CFM-56 engines are electronically controlled to protect against over-boost damage, but here’s a pilot thought: if the climb is proceeding correctly, why introduce more adverse yaw, and why strain the remaining engine?

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Now, crew response. The person noticing the engine failure is normally (but not always) the pilot flying who feels and counters the yaw. That person, or often both pilots, call out what they see: “Engine failure, number __,” or “engine fire, number ____.”

Then, this and only this: maintain climb speed (and thereby climb gradient) and ground track. Let’s backtrack a bit. Before each takeoff, on taxi out I verbally review three altitudes with my First Officer: the field elevation, the engine out altitude, and the minimum safe altitude for that airport. And that’s our focus in the event of an engine failure: climb at the correct speed on the clear zone path to the single engine climb altitude.

A wise old CRM (Cockpit Resource Management) instructor used to tell all the pilots at my airline as we cycled through for our annual recurrent flight training and evaluations the same very shrewd piece of advice for this and any other flying emergency. He was a crusty, retired Air Force fighter jock who’d hammer this home: “Whatever happens, before you react, you take a deep breath and say to yourself, can you believe this sonofabitch is still flying?

Even after that, we don’t react–we respond appropriately. That is, between the two of us, we agree on what we have, and that can only be three things: engine failure, engine fire/catastrophic damage, and engine overheat. Identifying the problem and the engine is important, because the corrective procedures differ.

So in the minute or so that it takes to climb to our pre-briefed engine out altitude, we’re both analyzing exactly what happened, and which checklist we will bring out to accomplish step be step.

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What if the First Officer, rather than me, is flying when the failure occurs? From my point of view, and I’m coming up on 24 years as captain, I say so much the better: all of our F/Os know exactly what to do and moreover, they’re flying, they have the feel of the jet and the corrections in–why throw a control change into the mix and try to handle it cold?

As an added bonus, as the pilot monitoring the pilot flying, I’m downloaded of the physical stick and rudder challenges which are significant single engine. I can concentrate on analysis, procedures, radio calls and clearances because “Bubba,” as they referred to F/Os in flight engineer school, knows what he’s doing.

So here we go: what do we have? Simple flameout? Do we have RPM? If it’s not turning, there’s damage. Temperature range? Fire? Oil pressure? Only when we both concur will I, being the pilot not hands-on flying, pull out the checklist and read it step by step as I accomplish each with the F/Os concurrence at each step.

Here’s where discipline and crew coordination is key: NOBODY is going to start flipping switches on their own and whatever is done will be done only as I read the procedure. The best way to mangle any emergency is for anyone to go solo and start operating off script.

In every engine failure scenario, there comes a point in the corrective procedure where a throttle must be closed and a fuel lever shut off, possibly a fire switch pulled. The throttle of course reduces the thrust, the fuel lever cuts off the fuel supply to the engine (it’s going to flame out) and the fire switch shuts off fuel at the tank and the wing spar (in case the engine fuel shutoff valve is damaged by fire or explosion) as well as hydraulic fluid, pneumatic bleed and electrical power.

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These actions are drastic and with only one engine operating, they must never be done independently, unilaterally or without a double-check and concurrence. They are also most advisedly done only after level at the single engine altitude with obstacle clearance assured.

Here’s how that plays out in the cockpit, verbally and physically:

Me, reading the critical steps: Fuel Lever, affected engine (confirm)

[pause] I touch the correct fuel lever, F/O concurs; F/O guards the good engine fuel lever with his hand.

Me: Cutoff. [I perform the action] It is cutoff.

Then we go to the next step in the checklist, me reading, pausing for concurrence and confirmation. Bubba is focused on aircraft control, altitude and airspeed, validating each checklist step I read before and as it’s taken. I’m focused on the procedures, plus backing up Bubba’s flying.

If I were flying when the failure occurred, same process, just reversed roles. Each and every step in each appropriate checklist will be accomplished with crew coordination till we are ready to return and land safely.

The easiest engine failure to handle is a simple failure or “flameout.” You may try a restart under some circumstances, or you might not take the time and instead, just get the jet ready to land. The most difficult failure is the fire and severe damage situation, but it’s handled the same regardless: carefully, step by step with collaboration and concurrence.

Never singlehandedly or without concurrence. Because the deadly reality of two engine aircraft is this: if you apply any of the required procedures to the wrong engine, the only engine sustaining your flight, the results will be disastrous.

I’ve had to fly four actual single engine landings in MD-80 jets for various reasons, none so far in the rugged, reliable 737. We practice engine fires and failures every nine months in our recurrent simulator training, handling multiple scenarios each four hour session. The key to a successful single engine incident is procedural integrity, crew integration and communication, controlled pacing, and standard operating procedures followed to the letter.

In the end, a successful engine failure landing comes down to coordination, discipline, adherence to standard procedures and as my old fighter pilot buddy used to say, taking that second or two to collect your wits and say, “Can you believe this sonofabitch is still flying?”

For those who don’t adhere to all of the above, it won’t be flying for long.

Air Asia Crash Raises Questions For Pilots.

Posted in air travel, airline pilot blog, airliner, airlines, flight crew, pilot, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 9, 2015 by Chris Manno

The search continues for the Digital Flight Data Recorder (DFDR) and Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) from the lost Air Asia flight 8501 and as that process drags on, speculation about the cause of the crash abounds.

Multiple news media sources advance abstract theories based more on the wide-open field of “what could happen” rather than what’s likely, serving only to blur the line between fact and fiction.

I won’t speculate on what happened to QZ 8501 because until the DFDR and CVR are recovered, transcribed and the recovered data analyzed, any theory advanced is just more noise in the media clamor aimed mostly at ratings rather than facts.

But, I can speak to what concerns me as the pilot of a modern, 160 seat airliner flying often in the same circumstances encountered by the lost flight. My goal in learning what the flight’s recorders report is simple: I want to know how to avoid a similar outcome.

With that in mind, here are my concerns. First, the slim margin between high speed and low speed limits at high altitude and the liabilities of each. Second, the problems presented by convective activity in crowded airspace. Finally, recovery from any inflight upset at altitude that may be encountered as a result of any or all of the above factors.

Early in any flight, the aircraft’s weight is the highest, limiting the ability of the aircraft to climb into the thinner air at higher altitude. As the flight progresses and fuel is consumed, the aircraft grows lighter and climb capability increases. Generally speaking, later in flight there are more habitable altitudes available due to weight constraints easing.

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But don’t think that climbing is the only option for weather avoidance. Often enough, a descent is needed to avoid the top part of a storm, the anvil-shaped blow-off containing ice, high winds and turbulence. Equally as often, lower altitudes may turn out to have a smoother ride.

The other major climb restriction along frequently used jet routes is converging traffic. Aircraft flying opposing directions must be separated by a thousand feet vertically, so if I  want to climb to avoid weather, I have to nonetheless stay clear of oncoming traffic. The New York Post reported the incorrect statement that the air traffic controllers handling the Air Asia flight “made the fatal mistake” of denying the Air Asia’s pilot request for a higher altitude. The first job of air traffic control is to separate traffic, particularly converging nose to nose. Climbing through conflicted airspace–or granting clearance to do so–would more likely be a fatal mistake.

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But there’s even more to the story: air traffic controllers respond to such requests in a more fluid fashion than the static “no” being implied by many media reports. In actual practice, for a climb or descent request, the denial would be more typically, “Unable climb, you have traffic on your nose,” or, “It’ll be 5 to 7 minutes before we can clear you higher,” or, “We can vector you off course so you can clear the airway and traffic and then climb,” or, “Unable in this sector, check with the next controller.” Regardless, there are other options to avoid weather.

If changing altitude is not an immediate option, lateral deviation is the next choice. But the same obstacles–weather and traffic–may limit that option as well.

So now, if vertical and lateral deviation isn’t immediately available, you must do your best to pick your way through the weather with radar, if possible, until one of those options comes available (again, at ATC denial isn’t final or permanent) or you’re clear of the weather.

Which brings us back to the margin between high and low speed limit. This is even more critical in convective weather, because turbulence can instantaneously bump your airspeed past either limit if there’s not enough leeway to either side of your cruise Mach.

The picture below shows a normal airspeed spread in cruise. Notice the speed tape on the left with the red and white stripe above and the yellow line below the airspeed number box. The hash marks represent 10 knots of airspeed. The red and black marker above the speed readout is called the chain, and it depicts the maximum speed limit for weight and altitude. The yellow line below the numbers is called the hook, and it marks the minimum speed required to keep flying.

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Turbulence, or more accurately, high altitude windshear, can bump you past either limit, or both, if there’s less than say, ten knots of slack, because moderate turbulence can cause swings closer to twenty knots; severe turbulence even more. Essentially, turbulence can instantly bump an aircraft out of its flight envelope.

In that case, the aircraft can depart controlled flight in a couple of different ways. The one that concerns me most is on the high end: if turbulence or any other factor pitched the nose down and the airspeed then climbed above the chain, the worst case is a phenomenon rarely discussed outside of the jet pilot community called “Mach tuck” that affects swept wing aircraft. Essentially, if you don’t immediately apply the proper corrective input, in a matter of seconds, recovery is beyond all means from the cockpit.

On the low speed side, if the wing stalls due to an airspeed below the hook, recovery is possible once the airspeed is regained. That takes altitude to regain, but normally can be done if a stall occurs at cruise altitude. But even that requires recognition and then the proper corrective control inputs, and Air France Flight 477 with three pilots in the cockpit entered a stall at cruise altitude but never identified the problem or applied the proper recovery inputs, resulting in a crash into the Atlantic that killed all aboard.

Bottom line: you need a wider spread between high and low speed limits in case of turbulence. If you can’t avoid turbulence and need to change altitude, you must assure a wide airspeed margin between limits to avoid being pushed by turbulence beyond either speed constraint. Here’s what the airspeed range looks like at high altitude:

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There’s very little tolerance for turbulence and any associated airspeed fluctuation.

In the worst case scenario, if the aircraft is pushed beyond its flight envelope to the extent that controlled flight is departed, a pilot must quickly and accurately recognize which situation is at hand, high or low speed buffet, then immediately apply the correct control input.

Problem is, they may initially look the same, and the correct remedy for one applied to the other severely worsens the situation. Specifically, if the aircraft begins a descent at a speed beyond the chain, the corrective action would be to deploy speed brakes, pull throttles to idle, apply back pressure to raise the nose, and I’d be ready to even lower the gear to add drag, even knowing that would likely result in gear doors being ripped off the aircraft.

If this recovery is not done early in the pitchdown, the result will be a dive with no chance of recovery.

If a low speed stall is encountered, the proper corrective action would be to add power and lower the nose until flying speed was recovered. But, if the high speed departure–also a pitch down and descent–was mistakenly interpreted to be a slow speed stall, applying the slow speed recovery to a high speed departure would be fatal.

The other way? If you mistakenly added drag and pulled back power in a slow speed stall? That would prolong the stall, but if the correct control input was eventually applied, the aircraft could recover, altitude permitting.

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Adding the factors that make this vital task of discrimination difficult would be any associated systems failure and the physical effects of turbulence that can make instruments nearly impossible to read.

In any pitch down, if rapid and deep enough, can cause electrical failure due to generators failing at negative G-loads associated with the pitch down. Yes, back up controls and instruments exist, but recognizing the situation, taking corrective action and reading backup instruments also takes time and attention.

Pitot-static failure, one of the contributing causes in the Air France slow speed stall, can also be difficult to recognize in turbulence or in an electrical failure.

Regardless, the high speed situation must be correctly identified and recovery initiated in a matter of seconds. Both situations would be difficult to diagnose and both recoveries would be very challenging to perform in turbulence and with any other systems failure or complication. Both recoveries are time-sensitive and if not managed correctly, one recovery could induce the other stall. That is, too much drag and power reduction carried beyond the return from the high speed exceedence can induce a low speed stall, and too much nose down pitch and excess power from a slow speed recovery could push you through the high speed limit.

So here are my questions, which are those that will be asked by The QZ8501 accident investigation board. First what did the aircraft weigh and what was the speed margin at their cruise altitude and at the altitude they had requested? What type turbulence did they encounter and what speed and altitude excursions, if any, resulted? What collateral malfunctions, if any did they encounter? And finally, what departure from controlled flight, if any, occurred, and what remedial action, if any, was attempted?

These questions can only be answered by the DFDR and CVR and my interest–and that of every airline pilot–is mostly this: I want to know what exactly happened so as to be prepared in case I encounter the situation myself, and I want to know what they did in order to know what exactly I should or shouldn’t do.

Like pilots at all major US airlines, I get annual simulator training in exactly these scenarios, hands-on practice recovering from stalls and uncontrolled flight. Is that enough? Can we do that better?

Once the facts contained in the flight’s recorder are extracted and analyzed, we’ll have the answers to all of these questions, which will help us prevent a repeat of this disaster. Beyond that, speculation is just a sad, pointless part of unfortunate ratings-hungry media circus.

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Flying a Jet in the Los Angeles Storms, December 12, 2014.

Posted in air travel, airline pilot blog, airliner, airlines, airport, flight crew, jet, passenger, pilot, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 13, 2014 by Chris Manno

 

“That’s some catch, that Catch-22.” –Captain Yossarian, Catch-22

Here’s the deal, captain: you’re flying a 65 ton jet into Orange County airport, the famously short 5,700 foot runway. The stopping distance required there is increased drastically if that runway is wet–and yesterday, “wet” was an understatement: Los Angeles was drenched in a ten-year storm dumping inches of rain in a matter of hours.

And here’s the catch: you want to have the least amount of fuel–which is weight–on board for landing to permit stopping on the short, rain-slicked runway, but at the same time, as much as possible for a divert if necessary to Los Angeles International Airport or to Ontario Airport, both of which have long runways.

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But it gets worse. The best bet for a diversion is Ontario, because the inbound air traffic is light compared to always busy LAX. But you’ve been watching on radar two thunderstorms sitting exactly on the top of Ontario, hardly moving. LAX is reporting heavy rain which means inbound delays and you know from experience that the inbound LAX air traffic flow includes many long-haul flights from Asia, Europe and points beyond. You don’t want to elbow into their already depleted fuel reserves.

Here’s your set of decisions: who will fly the approach at SNA? It must be done perfectly, given the conditions, which are reported as 1 1/2 mile visibility in fog and heavy rain, with 200 foot ceiling. The touchdown must be exactly on the right spot–neither too early nor too late–and exactly on speed, if we’re to stop on the remaining runway.

What is your plan: SNA, and then what? No holding fuel–on a missed approach, you can either try again, or divert to Ontario (thunderstorm overhead) or LAX.

You already know landing in a thunderstorm at Ontario is a poor choice. And you know, realistically, you don’t have the fuel to handle the air miles entry into the LAX landing sequence will require. A second try? Not even.

Okay, captain–DECIDE.

Here’s what I chose on each question. First, I had the F/O fly the approach. Why, when it had to be done exactly perfectly under bad conditions? The answer is, because he damn well knows how to fly an ILS, in any circumstances. If he flies the approach, fully investing in the stick-and-rudder attention demands which are large, I can focus on the big picture: what’s the Ontario storm doing? Watching LAX too on radar. Updating SNA winds, our fuel, our position.

Above ten thousand feet, we talk. I tell him what I’m thinking, then ask: what am I missing? Tell me your ideas? And as importantly, are you okay flying the approach? Because a bad night of sleep, a sore shoulder, anything–if you’re not up to this, I’ll do it.

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And we have one shot, I tell him, then I’m putting clearance on request (actually did that as soon as we were switched to tower frequency) to Ontario. If the storm looks impassable on radar, option 3 is declare an emergency for fuel and barge into the LAX landing sequence. Don’t like that idea, but if we’re down to option 3, there is no other choice.

I also plot the magic number for SNA winds: 110 degrees and 290 degrees. For the precision landing runway, any wind beyond those two cardinal points strays into the verboten tailwind area. Asked about landing the other direction and the answer was: long delay. Not possible, for us.

Already requested and had the data linked chart for our landing weight sent up to the aircraft: we require 5,671 feet on a wet runway, good braking, zero tailwind. Each knot of tailwind adds 150 to the distance required, so even one knot of tailwind exceeds the runway length.

I switch my nav display from a compass arc to a rose: the full 360 display. I’m getting wind checks all the way down final and watching my cardinal points, alert for an excedence.

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There’s a wind display on my HUD, too, but I realize that’s a calculation that is at least 15 seconds old. Eyeballs and experience tell the tale: he’s glued mostly to his instruments to fly a flawless ILS, but I’m mostly eyeballs-outside, monitoring speed, azimuth and glide path through the HUD, but paying attention to the realtime wind cues. He knows if I don’t like what I see, I’ll say, “Go-around” and we will be on to option 2 immediately. I know that if he doesn’t like the way the approach is going, he’ll announce and fly the go-around without any questions from me.

I tell him that if everything is stable on approach, let’s make a final wind analysis at 200 feet. If we’re both satisfied, silence means we’re both committed to landing.

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I review in my head the rejected landing procedure. That is, if we touch down but I judge we can’t stop, throttle max, speed brakes stowed, flaps fifteen, forward trim, back into the air.

Clear your mind, focus on the plan: hate math, but I can sure see the compass depiction that means a verboten tailwind. Poor viz in heavy rain, but once I spot the VASIs, I can tell what the wind is doing to us. He’s flying a hell of a good approach. One final wind check at 200 feet. “That’s within limits,” I say, just to let him know that component is fine. He’s flying–if it doesn’t feel right, I want him to feel free to go-around immediately.

I don’t want to see high or low on either glide path or speed. No worries–he’s nailed it, both are stable.

A firm touchdown, then my feelers are up for hydroplaning: none. Speedbrakes deploy, but we’re not committed until reverse thrust. The MAX brakes grab hold, good traction; we’re fine, reverse thrust, I take over at 100 knots.

Silence in the cockpit. “Excellent job,” I say as we clear the runway, glad we didn’t have to execute either backup plan. Relief, Boeing has built us a damn fine, stable jet for this weather, this day, this runway.

Now, put that all behind–we still have to fly out of here in less than an hour. And do it all again tomorrow.

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Air Travel Illustrated: The Holiday Flights.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline cartoon, airline cartoon book, airline delays, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airliner, airlines, airport, airport security, cartoon, fear of flying, flight attendant, flight crew, flight delays, jet, passenger, pilot, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 26, 2014 by Chris Manno

Some times words won’t do, or maybe illustrations can do better. Regardless, if you’re flying somewhere for the holiday, this is your life enroute. If you’re home already, here’s what you’re missing.

First, my best advice either way:

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With that in mind, make sensible reservations based upon experience, rather than an idealized hope:

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Flights are packed, so plan your inflight strategy:

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Getting a last minute seat can be nearly impossible due to holiday load factors, unless you’re willing to compromise:

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Keep in mind that you’ll have to handle your own baggage:

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Prepare mentally for the challenges of airport security:

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Please board only when your sedative is called:

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Ignore the pompous guys impressing each other in First Class:

class warfare

Or maybe share your admiration for them as you pass by:

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Realize that children are on-board, so you’ll need to deal with them:

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And parents, remember it’s your responsibility to discipline your kids on board:

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Pay attention to the flight attendants when they speak to you:

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And they may be talking to you even indirectly:

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So pay attention:

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And when I turn on the seatbelt sign, it does mean you:

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Realize that weather can complicate our flight:

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So be prepared.

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Anticipate the post-holiday letdown:

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Enjoy your leftovers properly:

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And congratulate yourself for traveling and thereby avoiding a worse fate. Bon voyage!

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More cartoons? Get the book:

cover promo

Get your copy now–just click the button below:

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Air Travel and the Ebola Circus.

Posted in air travel, airline pilot blog, airliner, airlines, Ebola, flight crew, passenger, travel with tags , , , , , on October 14, 2014 by Chris Manno

 


Ziploc


Air Travel and the Ebola Circus.

“If we couldn’t laugh we would all go insane.” –Jimmy Buffet

Government leaders are frantic to do something, anything, to assuage concern about the potential spread of Ebola. But air travel is neither the problem nor the solution.

Nonetheless, the government answer is, as in so many crises, that even doing a useless thing is better than doing nothing. So we now have “increased screening” at several airports, including JFK. But the problem is, the Ebola patient who died recently in Dallas arrived from Brussels, while the increased screening targets passengers arriving from Liberia, Sierra Leonne, and Guinea. One connection later, as in his case, the possibility of detection is beyond the “new” screening.

 

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Meanwhile, no mention is made of special screening of international arrivals in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, all of which have seaports and airports with regular international arrivals from Europe, Asia and the Middle East. The Dallas Ebola carrier could just as easily have entered the US on the west coast–or through DFW, Chicago or Miami for that matter–with no additional “screening.” And the notion that  increasing screening at certain airports is the solution sidesteps the fact that a traveler could arrive in Mexico City or Toronto and simply drive or walk across the border; or, working a cargo, tanker or cruise ship, simply enter through any seaport.  Again, it’s not air travel, it’s global mobility that is the vulnerability.

In any case, the special new air travel screening is really little more than a drug store twenty dollar digital thermometer and a lot of self-reporting. That charade is more theater than medicine, as Ebola has proven time and again, lying dormant well past the initial examination. The “enhanced” screening ignores the majority of the arrivals, and has a limited accuracy due to the incubation period of the disease, for the small minority of international arrivals who are screened. And there’s no special screening for the enormous flow of rail, sea or motor transportation across our borders.

 

Seriously? This is "enhanced screening?"

Seriously? This is “enhanced screening?”

 

And even worse yet, the lynchpin of the “enhanced” screening procedure is truthful answers to posed questions. The Dallas Ebola carrier simply didn’t report his exposure in order to enable his travel and the new “temperature check” wouldn’t have–and didn’t, as he departed Africa–detect the latent disease anyway.

 

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Given the high profile of Ebola as news media rush to cover and broadcast a “scare,” it was inevitable that panic would attend an incident of vomiting on an airplane. But the reality is, passengers getting airsick is as old as air travel itself. I used to take it personally as a pilot, as if I’d somehow not flown smoothly enough. That was until I noted that even just taxiing out from Las Vegas or New Orleans was often attended by hangover puking in the cabin. Now, however, this typical, ugly occurrence warrants a Hazmat response, plus YouTube and Twitter coverage of the unfortunate event.

 

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The crossroads of Ebola and air travel is a cataclysm of the news media at its worst and social media at its best: the tail wags the dog as regular news sources struggle to keep up with the instantaneous digital grapevine of Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube.

In the end, cable and broadcast media abdicate their responsibilities to investigate and report facts and simply show random, unmediated Tweets and video clips and call it news. As a nation we’re all the worse for indulging in group hysteria, but it seems that nothing is more important for an individual with a cellphone than a shot at the Andy Warhol fifteen minutes of fame which the desperate-for-headlines news media recklessly offers. Culture, unfortunately, trumps common sense and journalistic ethics.

 

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Meanwhile, the government implements showy passenger screening changes for air travel only and calls that prevention, neglecting any meaningful intervention in a global threat by attacking the disease itself. That in a nutshell is the hopeless tragicomedy that is the “first world” public and government response to a deadly plague.

Because while the media microscope is trained on flights and “screening,” the root cause languishes in the background. In reality, controlling global mobility by all modes, and developing a vaccine is the right strategy. But that sensible call to action seldom heard above the media uproar about air travel. Which only confirms for me what a very wise woman I know is wont to say: “We are a nation of idiots.”

So as Jimmy Buffet suggested, we might as well laugh about it while we can, or at least until someone finally (if ever) looks beyond air travel and focuses on a real containment strategy, plus a vaccine. Because as I’ve said, air travel is neither the problem nor the solution.

Meaningful action won’t come from the fumbling “government,” and it sure won’t be the hapless news media. But the joke’s on us until then.

 

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