Archive for the airliner Category

JetHead, The Novel: Chapter 2.

Posted in air travel, airline novel, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airliner, flight attendant, flight crew with tags , , , , , , on April 22, 2016 by Chris Manno

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Have you read Chapter 1? Scroll down and you’ll find it. Here’s Chapter 2.

Chapter 2: Lurch and The Beaver

The spool-up growl of the big Snecma engines building to takeoff power still gave him a shot of adrenalin: such engineering marvels, spinning at thousands upon thousands of RPMs, a thousand degrees, flawlessly, for hours. Lurch toggled the TOGA button on the autothrottles then rode them with a loose hand on top, right up to the N1 setting he’d grudgingly briefed. Digital readouts blossomed and counted up, then held at 91.4, just as planned, then a shove in the pants, forward, turned loose.

“Thrust set, 91.4,” Bob announced confidently. That was required, so Lurch would just have to deal with it. He didn’t seem to like much talk in the cockpit, but Bob took solace in the stream of useful procedural information he could provide regardless. After all, the airline had crammed his head full of fifty thousand little BBs of information in ground school and he was determined to show that all the little brass pellets hadn’t yet–at least while he was on probation–dribbled out of his ears to scatter across the cockpit floor like mercury.

He loved the gathering rush of power and speed, the slight rudder walk as the towering tail slab bit the air and Lurch tapped it a notch left to make the nose wheel clear the kerthumping runway centerline lights. Lurch was a pro, no doubt about it. He’d handled even the worst combination of snow and winds and shit weather with a calm, quiet ease. But what a grouch.

“Gear up,” Lurch growled from the left seat, holding his right hand out, palm up, the signal for the command. Dammit–Bob had missed his “positive rate” call out, mandatory, confirming that the jet was climbing. And Lurch hadn’t waited for it.

The blessed instant of flight was an illusion, like his first flat spin in an Air Force jet: not that the jet spun but rather, the view did. Heart thumping, he’d been ready, at twenty-thousand feet in the clunky Tweet jet trainer, sucking on an oxygen hose with a mask mashed to his face, cinched up tight in the ejection seat. “You ready?” Death Ray had asked with a droll foreboding, from the right seat. “Yeah,” he’d answered, in a tone that said ‘fuck you, I’d sooner die than show fear in front of you.’ And he’d meant it.

Then Death Ray pulled the nose up, bled off the airspeed and stomped the rudder which induced a flat spin like a plate whirling atop a stick for a juggler, the wingtips sailing round and round and the jet flat plunging from 20,000 feet down to ten, straight down. Anticlimactic, it was; as if they in the cockpit stood still and the Earth and sky and view rotated around them. A moment of elation, not fear; “ain’t nuthin’ to this aviation shit” he’d echo with his flight buds in the bar that night.

So it was with takeoff: Lurch eased the yoke back and the Earth just fell away. Then, he set the pitch to freeze the airspeed and the Boeing rose, following the nose up to about twenty degrees, climbing and accelerating.

Frequencies were changed, tower handed them off to departure, the low sector first, as the litany of cleanup went step by step on the flight deck.

“Clean machine,” Bob said, verifying the wink-out of the green leading edge light, plus the two flap needles flush on zero. He resisted the urge, in deference to Lurch, to say the cabin was pressurizing, the fuel feeding from the center tank. Just tell me what’s wrong, the sourpuss had said, and if nothing is, nothing needs to be said. So he thought it to himself and left it at that.

Passing ten thousand feet, Lurch punched the flight attendant chime letting the cabin crew know they were no longer in “sterile cockpit.” Within a heartbeat, the crew interphone chime rang over Bob’s head.

“It’s for you,” Lurch said, never looking away from the sky ahead, still hand-flying the jet.

Bob grabbed the handset. “This is Bob–”

“Look, Bucko,” that would be Dixie, “Am I gonna have to teach you how to run the air?”

He didn’t know what to say. Dixie’d been flying since he’d been in high school, maybe before. When Lurch had introduced her–they seemed to go way back–she’d laughed and said, “I’m not bringing you a crew meal–I’m just going to take you up to my room and breast feed you.”

He didn’t look that young, at least in his own mind. But Dixie, Lurch and about half the crew force looked to be his parents’ age. Except that one in the back, Kerry? She was a newhire, like him. More his age.

“So turn up the air, Bucko,” brought him back to the problem at hand. He sighed, ready for the abuse that “twenty questions,” now required, would bring down on his head. Seemed like flight attendants couldn’t discuss the temperature with a clear statement of what they wanted. You had to drag it out of them. Did “turn it up” mean hotter or colder?

“Do you want it–”

She cut him off. “Look, I’m going to yank these goddam pantyhose off and put ’em over your head and see how well you breathe.”

Ah, she wants the cabin cooled down. “Okay, I’ll cool it a–”

“No,” she butted in, “You’ll give me full cold and I’ll say when.”

Yes ma’am, he wanted to say but decided not to tangle with the number one flight attendant, especially being acid-tongued Dixie. Why couldn’t sweet, young, blonde Kerry; no, Kelly was her name–why couldn’t she be number one?

“Okay,” he answered, reaching up to twist both cabin temp knobs to the cold side. “Here it comes.” She’d already hung up.

He adjusted the temperature rotary knob to display the cabin temp in both locations.

“Says it’s putting out seventy five degree–”

Lurch raised a hand, still looking ahead. “How long you been married?”

He thought about that. Oh. A “yes dear” moment. But up here, we’re pilots, not compliant hubbys, running state-of-the-art airliners with limits and procedures and know how.  Bob wasn’t buying it.

“Seven years,” Bob answered. “But the cabin temp is–”

“Whatever she says it is,” Lurch finished the sentence for him, turning to offer a rare, if wry smile, though his eyes remained inscrutable behind a pair of sunglasses. Not Aviators like Bob’s, he noted. Lurch didn’t seem to get into the airline pilot persona.

“Look,” Lurch offered, “They’re all back there running around, working, swathed in polyester, sweating. Who cares what a temp probe located God knows where says? Just do it.”

Bob shrugged. “Sure.”

“Did you fly the MD-80?” Lurch asked. Bob nodded. “Well, those packs go full cold at takeoff power. Not the Boeing. The pilots coming off the 80 always goose the heat out of habit, and always get a call like you just did. If the temp was okay on the ground, it’ll be okay in the air.” He reached up and moved the cockpit–“control cabin,” as only Boeing called it–temp controller a quarter turn to the left. “And the last thing I want on climbout is heat in the cockpit, too.”

Bob nodded, filing that away. The ground school instructor had warned them that if the temp control valve got frozen on the ground, it might remain stuck in the air. But he was gradually learning that there was a great disparity between ground school book knowledge and practical application in flight.

That was all new. The Air Force was all about reciting technical and procedural knowledge from various manuals. You were only better than the next guy if you could say more, memorize more, and show those above you what you knew.

“Guess I’m still in the Air Force squadron mode,” Bob said. “Standardization, orals.”

Lurch punched the “Command A” button.  “Autopilot’s on. Yeah, it takes awhile to move beyond that. But we’re not like that. Especially on this fleet.”

Air traffic control directed them to a new frequency, and the new controller cleared them to their final cruising altitude. Lurch set the altitude and confirmed it verbally with Bob.

“Three nine zero.” Lurch pointed to the altitude set window. “Thirty-nine,” Bob repeated. A wispy cirrus layer slipped under the nose, creating a flickering sun dog. As they climbed, the ground shrank into a carpet of browns and greens, then the higher they went, a tapestry of land and woods veined with spindly roads.

“The Air Force needs all that,” Lurch said. “Very new people flying and fixing complicated aircraft and missions. But the average pilot here has nothing but flight experience, and tons of it.”

Bob had to agree with that. “And even better,” Lurch continued, “We’re not fighting each other for promotion.”

That had been one of the prime reasons Bob had been glad to leave the Air Force. Promotion was one part proven skill, two parts politics and sucking up. In the airline pilot world, promotion was all about seniority, longevity which, by nature normally meant an assload of flight time.

“Takes time,” Lurch offered charitably. “But you’ll learn to ease up.”

Easy for you to say, Bob thought to himself. You’re half retired as it is, flying only turns to either coast, home every night. GOOMSOM, the acronym was scrawled in the kitbag room: “Get Out Of My Seat, Old Man.” Meaning, for old guys like Lurch, retire. Bob allowed himself an inward smile.

Yeah, he was junior and he knew it. Still puppyish about the thrill of flying, and nothing but flying, since he’d left the political ass-kissing contest of Air Force squadron life.

He didn’t even mind being on reserve, though so many of the older guys griped about it. Life was good, whatever he got called to fly by Crew Sked was better than just sitting in the always crowded and usually smelly crash pad. Even this turn with Lurch, as he’d nicknamed him. He’d have a great yarn to spin back at the crash pad and–

The printer hummed and immediately, Lurch had a hand on the printed message and tore it down and off. The old guy stared at it for a moment.

“Fuck.” He handed the message to Bob, who read and then reread the short message.

“Fuck,” Lurch muttered again. Bob laid the flimsy paper on the Comm pedestal. Wow. Things were about to get crazy.

[Note: Chapter 3 is done and will be posted soon]

Airliners vs. Drones: Calm Down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anything else is much ado about nothing.

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Pilot Incognito: The Trouble With Air Travel.

Posted in air travel, air travel humor, airline, airline cartoon, airline cartoon book, airline delays, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airline ticket prices, airliner, airlines, baggage fees, flight attendant, flight crew, passenger with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 27, 2015 by Chris Manno

Let me confess: though I fly at least 90 hours a month as an airline pilot, I personally hate air travel. The delays, bad weather, crowding, security, expense, cattle-herding through packed terminals, the security gauntlet, baggage claim–I hate all of it. Give me a road trip, a map, hotel reservations, a route and I love to travel, driving. Hang airline reservations over my head and I go as to the gallows. safe word0001 But this past holiday weekend, I did exactly that: I bought tickets for my family and me, and we faced the ordeal together. Sure, we can travel free–but not if we have a tight schedule and an event to attend, especially on a federal holiday weekend like Memorial Day. I thought to myself, as I went through the steps as an air traveler to find a decent fare, buy a ticket, and travel, let’s see what this is like from the passenger standpoint. Year round, I hear the griping about airline service, fees, late flights, rude passenger service. I decided I’d get the full experience from start to finish, then decide for myself if the urban legend of horrible air travel was true. image Reservations? On line, complicated, tedious and annoying. There were too many ways to screw up, which I did: whoops–this particular flight goes to Baltimore, not Washington Reagan. All airlines consider Baltimore, Washington-Reagan and Dulles to be “Washington DC” for their flight purposes–but not mine. They dump them all together online, sorting by “value,” which is to say, “here’s what we usually can’t sell, so it’s a little cheaper.” From a consumer standpoint, the value of “cheaper” versus “where I need to go” is bass-ackwards, priority-wise. But online reservations are their ball game, so they make the rules. A long, frustrating sorting process–mostly wading through stuff they want me to buy–culminated in the painstaking process of names and addresses for all three of us. I’d had to change some details once it became apparent what we actually needed–the punishment for that is retyping all the data for the three of us each time. Fees? Yes, but there’s nothing sneaky about it: want to board ahead of others? Pay for it. Want more legroom? There’s a charge. Check bags? Pay. So? That seems fair to me–we’ll board with our group. We’ll use the seats I chose. We’ll check one bag, and pay for it. That’s business. I have no problem with that but then maybe I don’t perceive these extras as my birthright. image At the airport, as a pilot I could have entered the terminal through a couple of different authorized access points. But, I was traveling with my family–we stay together. The security screening was adequately manned so traffic flowed smoothly, with an ironic twist: we were in a very short, fast-moving general screening line, while the TSA Pre-Check line was three times as long and moving slowly due to the need for more elaborate document checks. The TSA people did their job efficiently, with only a minimum of the cattle-call feel. But the annoyance wasn’t the TSA staff, but rather many other air travelers who were distracted, inefficient, and rude, shoving ahead of each other, not following basic instructions. I could imagine the complaints from many of those passengers who were actually the problem themselves, rather than the screening process. Another irony.

Once on the secure side, we prepared for the reality of air travel: we bought a bottle of water for each of us, plus a sandwich each. There’s really no food to be had on the flight, largely because over the years passengers have demonstrated loud and clear that they don’t want to pay for food. Fine–we paid at a concession stand for food instead, then brought it aboard. Those who didn’t went hungry (and thirsty) in flight. That will get chalked up to poor service in some customer feedback, but the situation is exactly as consumer demand dictates. Again, the line between the cause of the complaint and the complainers becomes blurred. image Since I paid to check the one large bag we brought on the trip, we had only hand carried items: a garment bag, which I hung in the forward closet as we boarded, and a mini-sized roll-aboard. We were near the back of the plane, but still, storage space wasn’t a problem even though every seat on the flight was full. Again, either you pay to check a bag, or pay to board early to get overhead space–or you don’t. The airline product now is cafeteria style: pay for what you want only. Those who expect dessert included with their appetizer will be disappointed.

I could see as we boarded that the crew was tired. We were scheduled to land at midnight and they’d obviously already had a long day. I approached them this way: they’re at work, they’re tired–leave them alone and get seated. Those passengers who presume that their basic airfare has somehow bought them a piece of somebody’s workday are flat out wrong. My wife, a veteran flight attendant, always hated it when passengers boarded and ordered her, “smile,” as if she were a character at Disney. I roll my I eyes when I’m squeezing past passengers on the jet bridge, returning to the cockpit, when there’s the inevitable “We’ll let you by” as if we’re all just “funnin'” rather than me trying to accomplish a complex job to get us airborne. Ditto the cabin crew. Leave them alone. Most of the boarding hassles are, simply, passenger induced: the inevitable bashing of bags against people as passengers shove their way in. Backpacks are the worst, with passengers whirling around, smacking someone else with their wide load. Others dumbly push bags designed to be pulled, drag bags designed to be rolled, a struggle with too-wide, over-stuffed bags because by God, THEY’RE not paying to check anything.

image Once airborne, we each had what we needed: water and food. So, when the service cart reached us, the beverage was a bonus. Yes, I could have shown my crew ID to get maybe a free drink, but it’s not worth: I’m not working, I’m glad I’m not working, and to keep the precious bubble of anonymity and “not at work” ambience, I paid $7 for a drink. Well worth the price. Arrival was on time and the last hurdle was deplaning, a simple reality made into an ordeal, once again, by some passengers: even though the forward door wasn’t open, there’s a mad rush to bolt out of coach seats and start slinging hand-carried bags like missiles. There’s a repeat of the boarding bashing of other passengers with backpacks and heavy bags. There are those in rows behind you that won’t wait, but feel they must push past you. Bags not designed to be pushed, pushed; bags designed to be rolled, dragged. image Basically, most of the hassles of being a passenger are caused by, or certainly compounded by, other passengers. The tableau of air travel is the reverse of the classic “ascent of man” drawings, with travelers becoming stooped with fatigue, unmet needs (don’t pay for food/water on the plane–BRING IT), too heavy bags (CHECK IT–you have $500 for your headphones, audio equipment and iPad; invest $25 in your own convenience). Air travel is the descent of man–so many unthinking, illogical, uninformed (what’s your flight number? Boarding time?), helpless (“Where’s the bathroom?”) and rude (gotta shove ahead through security, during boarding, and deplaning) people spoiling things for everyone–including themselves. image The return trip was much the same. I have to say, my usual reluctance to travel by air proved to be an overreaction: nothing turned out to be urban-legend awful, from security to boarding to baggage claim. People just like to gripe and I have the feeling that the loudest gripers are among those who, as noted above, cause and compound the very problems they complain about. Regardless, we got where we needed to be, on time, efficiently, as promised. That’s a positive experience, in my opinion. I’m back in cockpit again, storing that lesson away: air travel urban legend, along with those who rant the loudest, both have very little credibility. Take your seats, let the crew do their job, and we’ll be under way shortly. Given my choice, I prefer to drive, but flying is nonetheless an efficient, fairly-priced indulgence. If only that could be a more common realization. AIPTEK

The Half Truth of Mary Schiavo

Posted in 9/11, air travel, airline, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airline safety, airliner, airport, airport security with tags , , , , , , , , on May 12, 2015 by Chris Manno

The Half-Truth of Mary Schiavo

Mary Schiavo, former Department of Transportation Inspector General and a frequent critic of airline security, made headlines recently with remarks that flight crews nationwide consider inflammatory, untrue and ultimately, disingenuous.Ms. Schiavo alleged that Known Crew Member (KCM), an advanced security program that currently validates airline crew members’ identity from a national data base, then allows them airport access without further search, creates a security risk for air travelers. But the fact is, Ms Schiavo is aware that the KCM program is the best and most technologically advanced solution to a problem she faced–and never solved–during her tenure as head watchdog at the Department of Transportation.security-den1The KCM database matches crewmembers employment and security certification with a current photo that is kept updated by each airline and the TSA. This is a face-to-face scrutiny and validation even more advanced than the widely acclaimed Global Entry program designed to efficiently certify the identity and security of air travelers entering the United States.

Schiavo knows that airports in the United States are small cities in themselves, comprised not only of the wide-ranging flight support activities required to handle transport aircraft, but also to meet the needs thousands of passengers transiting these facilities daily.

There are food service, passenger service and retail facilities in each airport, mostly on the “secure side” beyond the security screening checkpoints. Thousands of employees performing duties at airport passenger service, retail and restaurant facilities must move in and out of the secure side of the airport and Schiavo is well aware of the access systems such as keyed or electronic access doors for that purpose in every airport.

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Never has the 100% screening of all airport workers been considered practical or feasible and therefore alternative employee modes of access have of necessity been standard in order to allow passenger screening with reasonable wait times.

But that’s only the “front of the house” security theater that Schiavo knows co-exists hand-in-hand with a wide open back door access at every airport: vehicles ranging from semi tractors pulling forty-foot trailers to dump trucks and bulldozers are waved onto the airport ramps near fueled and taxiing aircraft daily with only a cursory glance at an identification badge. Thousands of those identification cards alone are deemed sufficient to allow flight line access to contract workers from construction, repair and most frequently, food and retail merchandise delivery, never mind the non-stop caravan of catering trucks wandering the flight line largely uninspected.

Meanwhile, KCM is the only security program assuring that crewmembers are who they say they are and have current and valid access credentials. Crewmembers are but a fraction of the multitudes granted airport access, yet they are the only group whose identity and legitimacy is positively verified. This, after background checks, random drug tests and no-notice personal items inspections by the TSA.

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The irony is, Schiavo singles out those crewmembers and the most secure, updated, state-of-the-art security access program for unwarranted, alarmist sound-bite criticism. If anything, KCM should be the model for all airport access programs. The worst part of her criticism, however, is her allusion to the September 11th hijackings, implying that “Known Crew Member” is in any way risking another such a tragedy.

Certainly, the former Inspector General of the Department of Transportation knows all of the above. That she chooses to mislead the traveling public on such a crucial issue is both disingenuous and deplorable, and her September 11th allusion is unforgivable.

Here’s another perspective on Schiavo’s comments, from a veteran flight attendant. Just click on the photo.

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Why NOT remotely piloted airliners?

Posted in air travel, airline, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airline safety, airliner, airliner take off, flight attendant, flight crew, German wings 9525, jet flight, passenger, Remotely piloted airliners, security with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 16, 2015 by Chris Manno

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In the wake of several recent airliner losses, talk in the media once again turns to the futuristic concept of remotely piloted passenger jets.

A very bad idea, as I explain on Mashable.com. Just click here to read, or use the link below.

 

http://mashable.com/2015/04/16/aircraft-accidents/

 

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All the Wrong Answers to the GermanWings 9525 Questions

Posted in air travel, airline, airline cartoon, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airliner, airlines, German wings 9525 with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 26, 2015 by Chris Manno

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All the Wrong Answers to the GermanWings 9525 Crash Questions

As is always the case after an airline disaster, the media and shortly thereafter, regulators rush to propose a quick but ill-advised “fix.”

In this case, the proposed quick fix falls into one of two useless but unavoidable categories: technology and regulation.

In the first case, technology, the spectrum of bad ideas runs from remote control to cockpit access override. That reminds me of earlier, fun days flying a supersonic jet that began to accumulate pilot fatalities in low speed, low altitude ejections. The engineering fix was to install a drogue chute that deployed upon ejection to hasten the main parachute deployment. That worked fine until the first high speed, high altitude ejection when the drogue chute deployed at Mach 1 and the G forces cut the pilot in half.

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Back to today, talk in this airline tragedy is of an even more bizarre solution: remote control “intervention:” taking over the aircraft flight controls from the ground. Beyond the fact that I as a thirty year airline pilot will not set foot in a cockpit that can be commandeered by remote control, consider the added layer of vulnerability: beyond two pilots who “could go rogue,” you’ve now introduced an entire spectrum of people, entities and hackers capable of taking over the jet. Better? Really?

Yes, some type of cockpit access intervention “might” have worked to restore this one pilot to his rightful place, while opening every cockpit henceforth to an outside “intervener” which defeats the necessary cockpit exclusion no one disputes is necessary: if one can, eventually all can. Better?

Then there’s the regulatory crowd, for whom the semi-annual FAA pilot physical, recurring spot checks, blood and urine alcohol and drug testing is not sufficient to validate a pilot’s fitness to fly. What’s next, a psych exam before brake release? A background check beyond the extensive background checks we all have already? A credit report before each instrument report?

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Here’s the real problem: there are no quick solutions. Yet that’s what the public “demands”–for now, but only for now. The fact is, in Texas alone there have been 257 traffic deaths so far this year, yet no one’s calling for a twenty mile an hour speed limit or any other radical but certain solution. Yet the “1 in 11,000,000 chance” (Harvard 2006) of dying in a plane crash brings a public outcry for an immediate technological or regulatory intervention.

I watched Air Force One arrive once, the president bounding down the stairs and greeting the crowd as law enforcement snipers on rooftops looked on. No “remote control triggers,” no on-scene sharpshooter credit checks. Rather, the thinnest final line ever drawn: trust.

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In the end, that’s what it comes down to anyway: trust in your flight crew. There’s no simple solution to the rare and tragic occurrence that just transpired over the French Alps. But there is real danger in half-baked solutions that just add more layers of vulnerability to what is already 11 million to 1 odds in an airline passenger’s favor.

Despite the media frenzy driving an out of scale public reaction, no “solution” is better than a hasty, ill-conceived technological or regulatory bandaid that increases the very danger that started the panic in the first place.

If you don’t trust me in the cockpit, fine: trust yourself on the road. Your odds there are astronomically worse, if that matters to you, but at least the flying public will remain safe.

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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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