Archive for the flight training Category

So you want to become a pilot …

Posted in airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airlines, airport, flight, flight training with tags , , , , , , on July 3, 2015 by Chris Manno


So, you’ve decided that being a pilot might suit you and you’re embarking on flying lessons. Good for you. Here are some off-the-books lessons I’ll share with you based on my 20,000 hours as a pilot. You probably won’t read these elsewhere because they’re not the typical media hype nor the hobbyist pilot bravado. But these lessons are fundamental to your understanding of the pilot world you propose enter.

1. Expect resistance, both from within and without. First, from without: your family and friends are concerned about you and any risks you might take. They probably haven’t considered flying as you have, evaluating the risks and benefits, and many have either never thought about becoming a pilot themselves, or did think about it and decided against learning to fly. Also, there’s the expense, in both dollars and time.

Flying lessons require a lot of both and those around you may resist losing that time with you, plus they may be negative about you committing to flying the time and budget that will necessarily limit your ability to do things like go out or vacation with them (are YOU ready to switch your budget priorities?) and also, force you to rearrange your free time schedule.

Parents and partners particularly may worry about the risks (remember, they haven’t been educated about the admirable safety record of general aviation as you have) as well as the expense, which is significant, especially given that you don’t know yourself yet if flying really suits you.


All of that external resistance is understandable and rather than becoming frustrated, become an educator: explain the safety record of such faithful and timeless standards as the Cessna 150 or 172 or whatever you’re flying. Describe the incremental steps of a flight training syllabus with a qualified instructor. Yes, there’s a significant financial commitment required and no, you’re not certain that the cost will be borne out by a lifetime in aviation. Nonetheless, you’re now at a point where finding out makes sense, and you can simply walk away at any point if you find that flying doesn’t suit you.

Internal resistance? That’s YOU. How good are you at the disciplined pursuit of a longterm goal, which proficiency as a pilot certainly requires for as long as you intend to fly? Recurring, never-ending demands of ratings, physicals, and training lie ahead–is that a challenge you typically embrace? Do you follow through on your plans, especially those requiring the consistent grunt work being a decent pilot demands?

There’s more. Physically, your body is entering a foreign environment of new challenges, from new and unfamiliar motor requirements of three dimensional movement to the vestibular sensations of movement in three axes. As one of my profs at the USC Flight Safety Center liked to say, no matter what cosmic jet we fly, we’re still just a “basic two mile per hour human,” physically evolved to walk on land–not fly.

Don’t let that stop you, or even slow you down: you’ll likely feel inept, maybe klutzy, your first few hours at the controls but that’s normal–we all go through that because you’re transcending the thousands of years of evolution and learning new reflexes and unnatural physical response. Give yourself a break. Don’t judge the entire pilot experience by the early struggles because they will smooth out with time.


2. Once you start flying, DON’T fly in your head. Let me explain: do your headwork BEFORE flight–learn the procedures and subjects pertinent to your aircraft and area. In flight, GET OUT OF YOUR HEAD and fly, period. The knowledge is still there for you to call upon, but the more important lessons are to be had physically: pay attention to the flight, what is actually happening versus what you expected or what you were told.

We don’t fly in books, tapes, sim programs or DVDs–we do it in the sky, in the weather, the wind and ambient conditions. That’s where your air sense is forged.

Don’t get me wrong: be obsessive about your preflight prep–devour pertinent training materials, study, memorize and review. In USAF Flight School, we called it “chair flying:” we’d physically talk through and do the hand motions required to effect each maneuver on the syllabus for a particular flight. That’s to forge patterned thinking and muscle memory, two things key to the physical performance required in the air. Sounds silly? Did you know the USAF Thunderbirds do exactly that as a group, in their preflight briefing room? That’s because muscle memory is key to successful flight maneuvers. This will boost your learning as well as your performance. Reinforce this concept on the ground, study, learn, review, practice.

In the air–fly. Get out of your head, trusting that if you’ve studied and reviewed hard enough beforehand, it’s all still crammed onto your cerebral hard drive, ready to be called on from the background. In the foreground: FTFA (Fly The F*cking Airplane) which simple as it sounds, is not always easy to focus on. Which brings me to point #3.


3. The aircraft is your best teacher. Sure, you’ve read the materials, studied, and you have an instructor talking in your ear through every new maneuver. Still, what’s the airplane telling you through your hands, feet, and its response? If you try to correct things based on books or talk, even from your instructor, give priority to what the aircraft is telling and showing you. I didn’t say ignore the rest, just prioritize the actual flight results.

Even now as a captain with thirty years at the world’s largest airline, I see copilots mystified by why some formula they use for descent or intercepts is not working out in realtime. I have only one answer: FTFA. Because I don’t know or care what component of the complex mix of time, speed, distance and altitude is screwing any formula, because again, we don’t fly on paper–we fly in the living, breathing, ever-changing sky in a unique aircraft that resists the one-size-fits-all mentality of formulas and gouges.

Same with your flight training: know the procedures and processes cold (study, review ON THE GROUND), listen to your instructor, but first and foremost, FTFA–feel what it’s telling you, then you fly IT, not vice versa–whatever it takes, aileron, rudder, elevator–DO IT.

4. Finally, a word about consistency. In an undertaking like flight lessons, DO NOT underestimate the powerful force of consistency in all matters, from the aircraft to instructor to airport, environment and even flight time. Minimize changes to all of these key factors in order to maximize your learning and developmental skills. As important, minimize training gaps, especially when you’re just developing the required physical adaptation and muscle memory flight training demands. Even now, if I take a two week vacation, I’m a little rusty on my first flight back. When you’re just learning, training gaps will only add to your frustration and slow your learning.


My T-38 instructor pilot told me the Air Force could teach a monkey to fly if they had enough bananas. His point was, they don’t–and neither do you: flying is expensive in both dollars and time. Keep the above points in mind to get the most out of your flight training and to make the endeavor as smooth and enjoyable as possible. Your family and friends will come around, accepting your flight endeavors as you successfully solo and progress steadily toward your pilot rating.

The rest is up to you. Welcome to the pilot world–and as we say to each other, fly safe and, I always add, fly smart.
✈️ Chris Manno



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.

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.


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?


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.


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?


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.


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.


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.

The Annual Pilot Beating: A Love-Hate Thing.

Posted in flight training, pilot with tags , , on September 17, 2011 by Chris Manno

On take-off roll, a few knots past (of course!) maximum stopping speed, the left engine started to surge and compressor stall. I knew it as much from feel as from the engine instrument stack, although I glanced at it anyway. Trip the autothrottles off–don’t want them screwing with the power setting, chasing the N1– “Continue” I say to the First Officer who is making the take-off.

Without a word, he continues the climbout profile, even as I tell him, based on the gages, “Left engine failure.” We wait; no rushing, although I did call the tower, “Flight 914 declaring an emergency, we’re going straight ahead and will need a downwind at 4,000 feet.”

“Climb and maintain 8,000 feet if you can,” comes the answer. Shrug. Why eight? I think I know.

Sure enough, just prior to the base turn, lights flicker out, then emergency power shows a Christmas tree of warnings. Double engine failure. Flight 914 is now a 139,000 pound metal glider.

I’d started the Auxiliary Power Unit right after the first failure–kind of a reflex–having it ready to cover the lost generator once we reached a safe altitude. Good fortune; I connected both electrical distribution buses to the spun-up APU, then executed the rote memory items for double engine failure.

But what’s not a memory item is hard to forget: a windmill start is not likely at pattern speed. Descending at best glide angle means a slow speed and shallow descent, windmilling start requires more smash and a steep descent–not really comfortable at eight thousand–but necessary to get at least one engine running. Do it.

Sure, the APU is running, but what are the chances of pulling off that bleed configuration switcheroo correctly while attempting the double restart (hack the clock each time, remember?) and watching the ground come up to meet us?

My F/O is a Marine–you can always count on them, solid in every situation, and he’s no different–and it’s clear he doesn’t like trading the altitude for restart speed. I don’t either, but I’m doing the three dimensional geometry just as I know he is: about three times the altitude is the glide range. We’re good for way more than we need and in fact, gauging the distance and altitude I bet we’ll need some drag to get down to the runway. But trading off the altitude for restart leaves you no options. The Boeing is an energy miser–flies all day with that big wingleted wing and only grudgingly slows or descends.

“Give me at least 250,” I say, going through the restart procedure on both engines. Sure, the left one failed and might have internal damage, but it’s better than nothing. F/O lowers the nose a little more. Rotation on the dead engines picks up.

Over my left shoulder I’ve got the runway in sight. I want to say screw the restart, I’ll take it and deadstick it in. I have great faith in this excellent Boeing wing, with or without engines.

“I’m getting some N2 on two,” I say. Grudgingly, it’s coming back to life. Anything’s better than nothing.

Minutes later, we touch down and I brake us to a stop. “Excellent,” says the evaluator, one of two on board in the full motion simulator.

Yes, I know it’s a sim; but I also want to know how the jet flies under all conditions and what the timing, control feel and workload is like. Nobody’s willing–me included–to try this in the $60-million dollar jet, so we practice in the $5-million dollar simulator.

This is the second half of my every nine month beating. The first half is an evaluation: a line flight with various problems (mechanical, weather, legality, performance) thrown in. Prior to the two hour sim is a two hour “briefing,” which is one part information and two parts oral exam for you–and don’t stumble on any of the three full pages of memory items, never mind the hundreds of operating limitations numbers. Do it all  correctly and the two hours the flight examination portion is complete–then on to the second half, advanced flight maneuvers. In total, it’s a very slow-creeping six hour oral and flight exam.

The Inquisition: the oral exam before the simulator checkride.

And if you screw it up–which is to say, below standard in any area of standard procedure, emergency procedure or regulation; botch any maneuver, and your license is suspended.

We progress on to the final two hours of vital practice with windshear escape, mountainous terrain escape, inflight upset (pitch up, invert, recover without ripping any parts off the jet) and various fires and failures.

Every nine months, an airline pilot’s license and virtually, his career, is on the line. Every six months, the flight physical adds more jeopardy: beyond just the physical exam itself there’s the EKG that is data-linked directly to FAA Headquarters for analysis–they’ll make a determination as to whether you retain your medical certificate or not for another year.

Can’t worry about that stuff. Can’t do anything but dread the every nine month simulator beating and exam–but also, you have to welcome the opportunity: I want to practice the emergency procedures in real time, sharpen my reactions, test my judgment under pressure, my ability to problem-solve with complex and multiple problems. It’s a confidence builder, a necessary beating in order to lift an eighty-ton jet off the runway with 167 souls on board with complete confidence in my ability to get the jet and the folks back on the ground safely come whatever challenge.

That’s the price and the privilege of being an airline pilot. The smart pilots know you can’t have the latter without the former and though it never makes the ordeal easier, it does make the privilege all the better in every way.

Jethead Goes to School

Posted in air travel, airliner, airlines, airport, flight attendant, flight crew, flight training, jet, jet flight, pilot with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 24, 2011 by Chris Manno

Canada’s future is certainly bright, judging by the students in Miss Giulia’s sixth grade class at St. Monica Catholic School in Ottawa. What an articulate and considerate group they are, and they were gracious enough to share with me some questions about airline flying after studying the basics of flight earlier in the school year.

What do kids wonder about when it comes to flight? What did they discover in Miss Giulia’s classroom that sparked further questions about flight?

I asked–and they answered. Here’s a selection of their questions and my answers, with my heartfelt thanks to Miss Giulia and the entire class for generously sharing their time and ideas. In fact, they asked so many good questions that in order to answer them all, I’ll make “JetHead Goes to School” a series reappearing now and again with new questions and their answers.

1. Frank: “What’s it like flying near thunderstorms?”

That’s a good question. If you stay upwind of the storms, usually there’s no effect, although lightning has been known to reach ten miles from a cell to another cloud—or an aircraft. Hail, too, can blow out of the top and travel for miles. So it’s best to keep a healthy distance.

Sometimes you have to pick your way through the storms, finding gaps. Usually we do that with radar to be sure we stay clear. Here’s what a radar picture of storms looks like:

Green areas are rain, yellow indicates heavy rain, red means dangerously dense rain, and purple means turbulence. The pink line is our projected flight path, which I would alter to the right based on the radar picture. Here’s where the radar is located on an airplane–it’s always in the nose cone, facing forward:

The rules are, we need to stay at least ten miles from any thunderstorm. Radar helps us do that, especially at night when the storms are difficult to see. Here’s a picture I took as we flew by a storm pretty close:

It was actually taken late at night, but the lightning lit the sky as if it was daytime. Here’s a video of some storms in flight I made into a promo for my band (that’s my lead guitar, actually):

Definitely a good idea to steer clear of thunderstorms, don’t you think?

2. Anna R.: “Why is it so important to take ice and snow off the wings?

The airfoil has to be clean and smooth to produce lift. Ice or snow or even frost disrupts the airflow on the wing and reduces the lift produced by the wing.

Here you can see snow and ice that’s accumulated on a wing root (the place where the wing joins the fuselage). All of that is considered contamination and must be removed to allow smooth airflow.

Any contaminant ruins the smooth flow over the wing. In flight, the leading edge of the wing—that’s the forward edge—is heated internally with air ducted from the engines that is at about 500 degrees. No snow or ice can accumulate there. You probably never noticed, but we also have to check the jet engine intakes for snow and ice. Chunks of ice can break off and get sucked into the engine, damaging the components that are spinning at 30,000 RPM or more.

On the ground before a flight, trucks with de-icing fluid and crews in booms blast the ice and snow off the aircraft and apply a coat of “anti-icing fluid,” a chemical mix that inhibits ice formation on the wings. Here’s a picture out one of my side windows of the de-ice crew in Montreal getting ready to spray de-ice fluid on my jet this morning in Montreal.

We usually de-ice near the take-off runway because the de-icing fluid loses its effectiveness over time. We have charts that are based on the type of precipitation falling at the time that shows us how long the de-ice fluid will protect the wings, so we make a good effort to be ready for take-off right away after de-icing.

Want to see more cool pictures of the effects of a snowstorm on aircraft? I’ve added a short video montage to the bottom of this page, after the last question and answer. Enjoy!

3. Brayden: “Have you ever had a flat tire and had to fix it? How long does it take to change a tire?”

Never a flat tire on an airplane, but we have had to have tires changed. Aircraft tires on a big jet are much thicker and heavier than those on your car. Car tires are usually inflated to 30-35 pounds of pressure per square inch, but our aircraft tires are inflated to 200 pounds of pressure.

We check the landing gear and tires before every flight and if there’s a worn out spot or maybe a nick from the hard use our tires get (remember, the jet weighs 60 to 80 tons and touches down at 150 miles per hour or so), the ground crew changes the tire. They jack up the plane smoothly and only a little bit so you wouldn’t even notice from the passenger cabin, then they swap tires for a new one. Then we’re on our way!

4.  Alberto: How many female pilots are there in American Airlines?

Not sure, but I’d guess around 200 out of a total of 8,000 American Airlines pilots are female. My experience flying with them has been very positive. My guess is that since airline flying is a male dominated field by sheer number alone, they’ve really had to prove themselves all along the way. So I’d say they are as a group actually better than most male pilots who never had to “prove themselves” in the same way. Many, too, are like me, former military pilots, so we have the exact same experience and background. Here’s a picture of my friend and colleague Cindy who is an excellent pilot.

As with any major endeavor, the pilot career field is difficult to get into and stay successful in year after year. There are constant checks and exams we have to pass, not to mention twice a year physical exams. But also like any major endeavor, anyone, male or female, can succeed if they set their mind to it and do the work required.

5. Nicolas: “How did your experience with the Air Force help you as an airline pilot?”

My Air Force training was an immense help to me for many reasons. First, it’s the best training in the world, and the cost is something no one could afford on their own—estimated at $1.7 million per pilot. I got to fly the best equipment, newest technology and from the very start, flew worldwide throughout Europe, Asia and the Pacific. That kind of experience you can only get through the military.

Since most (although not all) airline pilots are ex-military pilots, we share a common denominator in our flying training, as well as the culture of safety, training and flying. Now when I step onto the flight deck and meet a First Officer for the first time, if he’s ex-military, I immediately know we’re of the same background and philosophy. That makes flying as a crewmember much easier. So, the experience and training that comes with being an Air Force pilot is a major asset as an airline pilot. Nonetheless, I have to add that some of the best pilots I know, pilots who are my favorite to fly with, are pilots who have a purely civilian flying background.

That’s all the space we have for this week, but check back regularly for more Q&A that will become an ongoing series, “JetHead Goes to School.” Again my sincere thanks to the children of St. Monica’s school and their most conscientious and caring teacher, Miss Giulia.

And here’s the video of the great blizzard of 2011 that certainly slowed down flight operations at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. Enjoy!

Going Down: What’s Up With Airliner Descents?

Posted in air travel, airliner, airlines, airport, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, flight training, jet with tags , , , , , , , , on January 26, 2011 by Chris Manno

Feeling less than comfortable, even downright disturbed with all of the sensations of descending in an airliner? Wonder what all the noise, pitch, turning and weirdness is about? Step inside my head for an inside look at what goes on and why.

Here’s where it all starts:

No, seriously–you’re in my head, remember? That’s the “Jethead” thing. And this is where “descent” starts for me: running the half-mile in high school. Stay with me.

I’m a high school sophomore, hiding in the locker room with the other half-milers who like me, have already finished our heats.

We have to hide because Coach just discovered that one of our two-milers has no-showed for his heat, so someone will be pressed into service. Can’t forfeit those points!

“Cougar Manno, report to the starting line,” blares the loudspeaker in the locker room. Damn.

No, my name’s not “Cougar.” It’s just that after nearly two years on the team, Coach Smith–who also sees me every day in geometry which he teaches–still doesn’t even know my first name. We’re the “Del Campo Cougars–” that’s good enough, make him run the two-mile.

Here’s Coach’s mug shot:

Okay, this is Pythagoras (take that, Coach Smith) but this is where we get back to flying and what my sophomoric high school years have to do with it. And Pythagoras is key.

And here's the Del Campo track from a jet I was flying, after so many years and laps watching jets above, swearing I'd fly one too--if I could pass geometry.

Say we’re approaching our destination in an airliner. We’re at cruise altitude. Our destination is ahead by a certain number of miles, we’re a certain number of miles up. Picture starting to form yet?

You can see that we’re going to have to slant our flight path downward and cover the distance to the destination at an angle, right? Two important points on that.

First, because Coach Smith taught that our flight path from altitude to destination is the hypotenuse of this triangle–it is longer than both other distances, right? This, if you care to consider it, is why “air miles” are different from “ground miles:” you fly a hypotenuse up and down from altitude, making the straight line distance between two points longer by two hypotenuses–hypoteni?–whatever, you get it, right?

Second, clearly the nose-down angle is going to need to be steeper if we’re closer to our destination than if we’re farther back, where we can make a very shallow descent. And here’s just a little more math to figure the “where” and “when” of a descent:

You have a certain amount of altitude to lose–for example, ten thousand feet–for a restriction. You have a certain amount of time between now and the crossing point. Index the two–a certain number of feet in a certain number of minutes–and you have the required descent rate in feet per minute. If I have ten thousand feet to lose in five minutes, I need a rate of 2,000 feet per minute.

If only it were that simple.

Okay, sometimes it is, and that’s what you perceive as a smooth descent. But other times, Air Traffic Control has specific requirements regarding how soon you’re allowed to descend. They add restrictions, too: cross a certain point at a particular altitude and speed. Then often some other contingency pops up to screw all the angles and numbers you’ve planned:

There goes your formula as well as your smooth, flat descent angle, and here come the speedbrakes:

They disrupt the clean airflow over the wing, and you can see why–they’re like a board pushed out into the slipstream over the normally smooth wing. So there’s a good deal of rumbly vibration, right? Here’s where they are in the cockpit:

The noise and bumpiness are no big deal–the aircraft is designed for this, and most of the noise and turbulence is from the wind. It’s like when you’re driving down the freeway and open a window–lots of wind noise, which is what a slipstream is: disturbed air. Loud, annoying even, but harmless.

What the speedbrakes are doing, however, is important: they’re catching you up on the formula above when some factor alters one of the numbers in any of the three key variables: time, distance, and altitude.

It’s a three cornered relationship–another triangle, right Coach?–whose sides are constantly in flux due to conditions. I’m always visualizing the three variables and how they are fitting and changing due to circumstances like altered restrictions, winds, and speed changes. The alternative to speedbrakes for increasing a descent, which I recall wistfully from my other flying life, you definitely won’t like, or certainly not the 4-G level-off at the bottom:

Sorry, just another quick flashback. Anyway, starting a descent farther out allows for a shallow, smooth descent–think of the triangle. Delaying the descent necessitates a steeper rate: the combination of feet per mile and thus feet per second. There’s the big angle that feels like a plunge when circumstances dictate a higher than usual descent rate.

In my Toronto example above, other traffic below kept us from starting our descent as far out as I’d have liked. Yes, ATC could have vectored that other aircraft out of our way, or even vectored us off to one side. But they didn’t. Suddenly, the time-distance-altitude triangle is changed.

As pilots, we’re always watching that geometric relationship develop in our heads–thanks Coach Smith–and I’m always planning a strategy accounting for the variables like crossing traffic and one I haven’t mentioned yet: tailwind.

Top left corner, “GS 526” means “Groundspeed 526,” even though our true airspeed is in the 400s. That’s because of the “276/107,” which is right above the arrow, which is showing the wind angle. Means that whatever speed we’re showing on our airpeed indicator, add the wind to that, because we’re in the airmass which is itself  moving at 107 knots.

It’s this deal:

No matter what speed they’re paddling, the raft’s in the swift-moving roaring torrent of fluid.

Air is a fluid, and 107 knots is a torrent. Which eats up our hypotenuse quickly and in my triangular mental image–I realize we need drag to descend by the restriction. And probably a steeper deck angle, plus drag like the speedbrakes and if we really need all the drag possible, the landing gear too.

Again, more noise, but the gear hanging is like a drag chute slowing us down–we can really lower the nose and keep the speed under control nonetheless, dropping our jet in the technical terms I’ve perhaps used more than once, “like a turd off a tall moose.”

How about a little privacy here?

But why, you might ask, don’t we start all descents way out from the destination so as to ensure a shallow, comfortable descent?

Well, for a couple of important reasons. First, it makes good business sense to stay at a higher altitude to take advantage of the lower fuel consumption and the favorable tailwinds. But as a pilot, I’m naturally a fuel miser: I want every pound of fuel in reserve for any contingency we might encounter–weather, mechanical, a runway closure, whatever.  Because–another flashback on my part–we can’t just air refuel like back in that other flying life.

"I think a 5,000 pound top-off will do."

Plus, the airspace is crowded more today than ever. If you plan to get into a major airport, you have to do your part to assure the traffic sequencing: increase that descent when Air Traffic Control needs it, and be mindful of the restrictions ahead. Because you folks in back have connections to make and schedules to keep, right?

Which means, of course, skillfully flying the hypotenuse, adjusting the triangle relationship of speed, distance and altitude. Squeeze in the feet per minute required to fit into the traffic mix.

And when you as a passenger on descent hear the noise of the landing gear or speedbrakes, feel the rumble, and notice the deck angle steepening, you can turn to your seatmates with a knowing nod and reassure them by dropping a few phrases since now you know about the “what” and the “why” of the fluid time-altitude-distance triangle.

Just smile and say, “Yup, boards are coming up,” or “guess they needed to catch up on the descent and a speed restriction” or if they still don’t seem reassured, flash a smug grin, then casually turn back to your newspaper with a bored yet oh-so-knowing, “like a turd off a tall moose.” Tell ’em you learned that from Coach “Cougar” Smith back at Del Campo High School.


Now, are you still worried about approaches and landings? Stay tuned, stay subscribed: we’ll take the mystery out of both very soon.

Fearful Flyers: What Not To Worry About.

Posted in air travel, airline cartoon, airliner, airlines, cartoon, flight, flight crew, flight training, jet, passenger, pilot, weather with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 30, 2010 by Chris Manno

Didn’t help much when you were a kid, at night, scared, and your mom said, “There’s no monster–go to sleep,” did it? Because fear doesn’t respond well to “shut up.”

So rather than dismissing the fears of white-knuckle flyers by saying, “There’s nothing to worry about,” I’ve taken to asking those fearful passengers, “What is it that worries you about flying?” That way we can actually examine their area of concern and shed a little light in their darkness, maybe helping them relax. It’ll be a long night otherwise, plus a lot of wasted fear that could have been vanquished with the flip of a light switch.

Here’s some of what I’ve been told by fearful flyers, plus what I’ve been able to pass along to them to help worry less, or even not at all. If you know someone who is afraid to fly, share this with them–it might help. If you have concerns about flying, share them with me. I want to be able to help you and the countless others who’d like to fly–or have partners or family who wish they’d fly–to understand what not to worry about when it comes to flying.

Welcome aboard!

From what I’ve gathered from nervous folks before or after a flight, several key worries seem to recur among the group. Most of these concerns center around a particular phase of flight (for example, take-off) or a flight sensation (say, turbulence, or a rapid descent) but the common denominator in them all is this: the unknown. Like the darkness in that scared kid’s bedroom. So let me shed some light on these areas to fill in the blanks for you, to unveil the unknown so you can relax. Because what you don’t know can help you.

First, of course, is The Take-Off. Seems like you just rocket down the runway in a thunderous roar, tilt back and climb off the runway, right?

If you only knew.

First, you should know that every parameter involved in the take-off, from aircraft weight to fuel weight to wind factors to runway slope to outside air temperature to aircraft center of gravity are all computed to the nearest hundredth–and then recomputed one more time before we reach the end of the runway.

That’s important for me–and for you–because we need to have the correct speed and thrust setting for the exact conditions. And think for a minute about both thrust settings and speeds.

Here’s the big boy engine–one of two, of course–on my jet, the 737-800. It can put out up to 27,000 pounds of thrust, but we seldom use more than 22,000 pounds per take-off.

So what? The “so what” is that means we have five tons of thrust to spare if we need it. We are actually over-powered if we need the extra kick. And consider this when you think of that: the design of the jet is that if we achieve a certain minimum speed (yes, that’s calculated and recalculated before flight) I can continue the take-off on just one big boy engine–easily. Or, if I’m below the maximum stopping speed (ditto the “recalculated” comment above) I can safely abort on the runway.

And in case you’re reading for detail, yes, the maximum stopping speed will ALWAYS be above the minimum single-engine take-off speed, so ultimately, the deck is stacked in our favor: we can take-off or stop under all conditions. Feeling more secure on take-off yet? Well wait–we’re not done rigging things our way.

There’s a safety margin built into the safety margin: we know what the stopping capability of the jet is–but we’ll knock 20% off of the performance, adding an additional safety margin to our stopping capability. In other words, if we know it takes 4,000 feet to stop at our precisely recalculated weight–we’ll require 5,000 feet of runway to do it.

But wait–we’re still not done stacking the deck in our favor.

Although we have thrust reversers that will throw out a 22 ton anchor to stop us–we won’t even count their effect and will calculate the stopping distance without them.

So let’s recap: on take-off, we have tons of extra thrust available if we need it. The aircraft is designed to fly–and fly well–on just one engine, once we reach the minimum take-off speed. And that speed is always below the maximum stopping speed based on factors biased toward a safe stop as I explained.

So we can stop or go, safely, no matter what. That’s all part of the design of your jet.

Everyone say "thanks" to the geek who designed our jet.

Those design limits  affect another in-flight boogie-man, turbulence. The engineers designed a load factor limit way above anything a rational person would ever expect.

That is, they took a G-limit that would probably give a horse an aneurysm, then again, added 50% to it. That’s the limit for operating the aircraft in turbulence. Wait for it . . .

. . . then they added another 20% to that for good measure. Your jet is designed to endure a shaking like Charro on crack and still go about its business. Although I’ve never asked a nervous flyer because I’m trying to calm them, not piss them off, if you are a white knuckle flyer, do you worry about your car falling apart whenever you cross railroad tracks? Probably not–even though your car is NOT designed with the stress tolerances of our jet. Just something to think about.

Now, let’s turn to the third big bagaboo: landing. There’s probably a lot about landing that you don’t know that would most likely make you feel more confident if you did.

First, once again, safety margins: the landing stopping distances are biased in our favor with 20% additional distance tacked on, plus our thrust reversers and their enormous power not even counted. Put that in your hip pocket and now let’s talk about weather.

It looks like pea soup from the cabin windows, doesn’t it? But not from where I sit.

It’s like x-ray vision: see the runway outline? It’s exactly overlaying the real runway, computed by a half dozen computers reading a handful of GPS systems reading a couple dozen satellites and figuring our position accurately to within a matter of feet. So, whether there’s pea soup from our cruise altitude to the ground, no matter: I can see accurately and we will land safely.

Or, if I’m not satisfied that the byzantine range of safe landing requirements are met, we have the fuel to go elsewhere. And the entire enroute portion of our flight, I’m constantly checking the destination weather, as well as the weather at potential divert options.

That’s one of the many things I’m doing on the flight deck so you can relax in back and enjoy the inflight entertainment (they were showing “The Office” last week). I have an eye on our “special clock”–fuel flow–which is our most meaningful measurement of how long we can fly. If things turn bad weatherwise at our destination, no problem: we’ll land at a safe and suitable alternate with lots of extra gas for unforeseen contingencies. That’s kind of the way I’m designed, after 25 years in this airline’s cockpits. And they back me 110% on that.

So let’s review the landing edge we’ve claimed for ourselves: we will have fuel to fly to our destination, shoot an approach and if it’s not satisfactory for any one of a hundred good reasons I can and do think of–we’re out of town, safely to an alternate with better conditions. Our stopping distance is biased in our favor. And I have been graciously granted x-ray vision by my airline (you should know that my airline, American Airlines, and Alaska are the only two using this “Heads Up Display” system) for all critical phases of flight.

Finally, there’s the big catch-all nervous flyer concern, and that is, not being in control. Right?

Wrong. You are in control just by choosing your flight. If it is on a major carrier–not a “regional” or “commuter” air carrier, you get me. Not just “me” as in me, but all of us and I’m typical of the major airline pilot: seven years as an Air Force pilot flying worldwide, twenty-five plus years in our cockpits, captain since 1991, and many, many thousands of pilot-in-command hours with the commensurate number of take-off and landings to match. Like all of our cockpit crews, “this ain’t my first rodeo.” You’ve chosen your crew well–by choosing a major U.S. airline.

You also chose well in your aircraft options by choosing a major airline with a huge maintenance and engineering department keeping the state-of-the-art jets healthy. And the airline has thousands of highly experienced and rigorously qualified pilots operating their fleet safely. Add to that your new-found insight into take-offs, turbulence and landing and you are in control as soon as you wisely book your flight.

That’s all it takes, and everything in regard to your flight safety is biased in your favor. Does that help shed a little more light on your darkest thoughts about flying?

If you are a fearful flyer, or if you know one, share this blog. Hopefully it makes one major point that helps folks relax in the air: there’s a lot of stuff to not worry about. If only your mom had explained when she told you that so many years ago.

The TRUTH About Flight Attendants.

Posted in air travel, airline cartoon, airliner, airlines, airport, cartoon, fart, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, flight training, jet, lavatory, passenger, pilot, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 23, 2010 by Chris Manno

You sure you’re ready for the truth?

Still watching “Happy Days” reruns? Or maybe even “Leave it to Beaver” (okay I do, but I already have seen behind the curtain when it comes to Flight Attendants) where June Cleaver vacuums in pearls and heels? If this is you, please click here. Okay, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

First, let’s start with the basics: who IS this person we call Flight Attendant? Where do they come from? Actually, they’re parents and spouses and significant others and sons and daughters. And they come from, well, everywhere.

My friend Melissa and her crew.

The common denominator seems to be the ability to get along with nearly anyone. That, plus the ability to handle children. No, it’s not that they handle children on board in their role as Flight Attendant. Rather, they must deal with a lot of childishness in flight on both sides of the cockpit door. So anyway, many, it seems, have a background in Education: either  as a college degree or as a teacher–or both.

My friend Nanci dealing with one of the children on board.

But that’s just what constitutes a significant number, but by no means, the majority. I once dated a Flight Attendant who had previously been a USDA meat inspector (I got rejected as “Not Prime,” although I’d like to consider myself at least “Average Chuck”), I know several with PhDs, I know one guy who flies for my airline who is an M.D.; the bass player in my band (shoutout to Angela!) is a flight attendant; My Darling Bride (MDB) before she became a “stewardess” was an engineer.

Okay, WARNING: don’t EVER call them “stew;” they hate it–even though my own mother, even after 25 years of non-rev travel on my passes still calls me to say, “The stews were so nice.”

Thanks, Mom.

But I can use the term myself because MDB doesn’t listen to me any more and in fact, with Flight Attendants you could say anything you want on the aircraft P.A. and they’ll NEVER KNOW. Seriously–the P.A. is a frequency that they can’t hear–kind of like a reverse dog hearing–so I could announce “I slept with your sister!” on the P.A. and she would simply ask, “what time are we landing?” Because she didn’t hear that P.A. either. But I digress.

Let’s just cut to the chase: here’s what you really want to know. In fact, let’s just go over important facts you NEED to know if you’re going to deal with flight attendants (of course you are, in flight), or date a flight attendant (you THINK you are, but that’s in YOUR dream, not theirs and they don’t get much sleep these days anyway), or maybe even you want to BE one (What, you’re finally off suicide watch, now this? Break the Prozac in half). Anyway, learn THIS:

1. Flight attendants will kick your ass. Seriously, they can and they will if they have to–and trust me, I’ll explain later–you want them to.

Okay, Carolyn's actually one of my Facebook friends and she's very nice. Mostly.

I’m not kidding. If you piss them off, you will pay. It might be be something simple like overfilling your coffee cup purposely so you’ll have to spill it (that was one of MDB’s specialties) or even the patented Flight Attendant “eff you” that is given so subtly and sweetly that you don’t even realize till the cart and flight attendant are three rows back before you think it through and realize, “Hmmmm . . . I think I just got told to go eff myself.”

Not that you don’t deserve it: they’ve asked one hundred people before you the same simple question–“What would you like to drink?” And they’ve answered the what do you have question at least as many times, plus they made a P.A. giving you the answers ahead of time. So, when you in row 32 ask again anyway, they have a soothing, pleasant proximate answer that after a few minutes your brain finally deciphers correctly as, you stupid idiot, YOU SHALL HAVE NOTHING. To which I would add, “you douchebag” but Flight Attendants are more skilled and less vulgar than I am. Bottom line: don’t be an idiot.

2. Flight attendants will share their ass–and they are crafty. We’re all crammed into a long, sealed tube, right?

Let’s face it–you’re in a sardine can for hours on end. In the cockpit, I actually have separate zone-controlled (by me) air conditioning and recirculation. Yes, it is good to be captain. And sure, you have some weird ideas about what goes on beyond that cockpit door, don’t you?

Suffice it to say that we pilots get “the royal treatment.” Now let’s move on.

Back to the long metal tube you’re paying a few bucks to be trapped in rather than face the freeway for days on end getting to whatever destination you’ve coughed up your vacation savings for.

The air in the jet is fine, it’s just the people like you who muck it up with your coughing, sneezing and personal exhaust if you know what I mean and I think you do.

Well, the cabin is their workplace, too.  As long as they’re trapped and required to endure assorted emissions from both of your ends (sometimes you’d have to think that the ones from your south end are more tolerable than the “what do you have?” stuff coming out topside), they deserve a chance to defend themselves. And when you travel, especially as much as we do on a flightcrew, diet is at best a catch as catch can thing. That end result is bad, eventually.

Wet cleanup on aisle six.

And the best defense in this case as in most others is a good offense.

Hence, “crop dusting.” That’s the diabolical plan by which they spray front to back on board so that by the time you get smacked in the face

"My god--air, please . . . !

. . . they’re already halfway to the aft galley and out of sight. You all will blame each other, but there was, you should know, a secret plan:

From the Flight Attendant Manual: "Always cropdust front to back."

There’s nothing you can do about this, by the way, except take small breaths. Deal with it.

Finally, here’s the last and probably most important thing you should know:

3. Flight attendants will save your ass. And that’s what they’re on board for–not just to tell you what beverages are available, not to entertain you, but actually to save your ass in the worst possible moment of your life.

Notice who isn’t walking away from this crashed aircraft alive and well? It’s the Flight Attendants who helped them off and are still on board helping others. That’s what they do. And that’s why you want them to be able to do item #1 above: they need to be able to throw your ass down an escape slide if you can get out of a burning passenger cabin yourself.

They can handle the 90 pound emergency exit door or the even heavier cabin doors. They know the route by feel and by heart to the nearest emergency exit in a smoke-filled cabin–and they’ll take you there. They are ready with first aid and CPR and a defibrillator and a fire extinguisher and oxygen and anything else you or I might need in flight. Not what we “want” in flight, although they take care of all they can–but most importantly, what you need to make it off the plane alive in any circumstance.

That’s the challenge they’ve undertaken on your behalf. That’s what they’ve trained to do, what they’re tested on and certified annually and rigorously through drills, classes and study.

They’re not leaving without you, even if they have to haul your ass out of a burning plane themselves. To me, that’s amazing.

This they do for minimal pay over long hours with little time for food or sleep and with complete disregard for time zones or body clock, because that’s just the nature of the job. I’ve never known a more selfless group, and there isn’t a more versatile group of professionals on the planet. They can hang with anyone, talk to anyone, and they’ll save the life of anyone, in the air or on the ground.

Do I have to spell this out for you? You should respect and appreciate the unique and giving individuals who are the flight attendants on your flight. Or in my case, I appreciate the one who is my partner for life. Or there’ll be an ass-whuppin’ in short order for you and me alike.

Got it? Good–remember it. Think about the big three flight attendant truths I just shared with you the next time you fly.

And be sure, if nothing else, that you know what you’d like to drink BEFORE the cart gets to you. When it does, “please” and “thank you” are mandatory–especially to the professionals who can both kick your ass and save it, and who will do both as necessary.

And THAT is the truth about Flight Attendants.


Actually never met the guy, but you gotta like the way he thinks.

Coming next:

You hear the name, you see the pilot, but who is this person, “the airline captain” in whom you place your trust?

The exclusive, only here. Subscribe.

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