Archive for the jet flight Category

Jet Wake Turbulence: Distance Ain’t Enough.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline pilot blog, airliner, jet, jet flight, passenger, pilot, travel, weather with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 19, 2013 by Chris Manno

Sneaking up behind me, are you? Here’s an infrared view you might need to heed: not the hotspots, but powerful the twin horizontal corkscrews of air current swirling off the wingtips of my jet. They’re wily, dangerous, and not to be trusted.

According to the Flight Safety Foundation, the vortices from a jet can have an internal rotation of up to 300 feet per second and often extend between 2 and 10 nautical miles behind a jet aircraft. The twin tornadoes–that’s literally what they are, horizontal but spinning powerfully–sink at a variable rate, between 300 and 500 feet per minute to an altitude  between 500 and 900 feet below the aircraft’s flight path and can persist for three or more minutes depending on the meteorological conditions.

That’s the problem, but hardly the full situation. Add to this hazard the closely constrained flight path of jet traffic in terminal areas. For instance:

SFO Q bridge

Approaching from the east, you’ll have a traffic stream from the west as well converging on the same runway complex. Not unusual as far as airports go–except that San Francisco International has less than the standard distance separating the two parallel runways. The FAA has waived the normal lateral separation, but you’d better keep that in mind nonetheless because that also means less than normal separation from the vortices of the aircraft next to you. Remember the outward spreading motion of those two tornadoes?

747 BAThis guy could be your dance partner all the way down final–and if he’s next to you, you aren’t entitled to the separation you’d get if he were ahead of you. Mostly, ATC will “advise” you to “use caution” for the heavy on the west runway, workload and time permitting–but they don’t have to.

And time and workload may not permit any advanced warning, and adverse weather can shroud the entire scene anyway:

SEA 16CLook at the inset on the bottom right corner: Seattle (one of my favorite destination cities!) has three parallel runways grouped together, and you won’t be told which of the three runways you’re landing on until you turn base to final about three minutes from touchdown. Would it make sense or even be possible to keep you informed of the heavies on all three inbound tracks? Add to the mix the typically obscured Seattle visibility, plus the added workload of programming and validating the FMS  sytem approach waypoints at the last second demanded by the late runway assignment and is there a possibility of situational awareness overload, on final approach: was that a heavy in front of us? Or on the outboard runway?


Bring that back to San Francisco, where the standard runway separation is “waived,” like in MSP and many other cities. Now you’ve got a “buddy” laterally whose wake turbulence is drifting outwardly–just as yours is–and just because he’s not a “heavy” doesn’t mean he can’t roll you.

The ICAO worldwide “recommendation” for separation between a “heavy” and a “medium” following aircraft  (say, a 747 and a 737) is 5 NM (9.3 KM); between two heavies, 4 NM (7.4 KM). But the wild card not even mentioned in the separation rules is configuration and maneuvering: simply put, a “dirty” jet (flaps, gear) creates a nastier wake than a “clean” jet, and maneuvering distorts weight. That is, if I level off my 160,000 pound 737 with an addition one-half “G” force, I add to the effective weight another 40 tons of effect. And we’re a medium jet–imagine a heavy maneuvering dirty adding to his effective weight and wake.

That’s the science, now here comes the art. You know the reported winds at the field, but that’s a red herring: your encounter with wake turbulence won’t happen on the field. You need to be aware of the winds on approach, at your altitude. If the lateral wind at your altitude is blowing into the other jet’s wake, here’s what can happen: if the drift equals the outward spread momentum of the wake–and you have to figure the “dirty,” “maneuvering” wild cards mentioned above–the effect will either be to move the wake away more rapidly, or freeze it in place till it dissipates. Which is it?

You can’t see wake turbulence. You can’t be sure where it is, or know it’s strength based solely on the aircraft designation. And sooner or later, you’ll find yourself in it despite your best, most diligent precautions. What are you going to do, captain?

dusk b

For a true jethead like me, the first answer is always speed–but not so fast (pun intended): you’re configured with restrictive maximum flap speeds. If you’re in a final configuration with 40 degrees of flaps, you’re limited to 162 knots max. But the second instinct is valid: power.

throttle bugeye

But power alone is only part of the answer: what you’re not doing is going down. Why not? Because we know the vorticies are sinking. If we remain level or climb, we’ll escape the effects. What are they?

The Flight Safety Foundation survey of hundreds of wake turbulence encounters reveals uncommanded roll in trailing aircraft of up to 45 degrees at altitudes below 1,000 above the ground. One thousand feet is another magic number at my airline: stabilized approach  (on speed, on altitude, power set) is mandatory from 1,000 feet to touchdown. On glidepath–not above or below; not accelerating or decelerating, power set to flown speed and stable. And certainly wings level.

Which brings up the next problem of two major headaches you’ll instantly own. First, the right amount of counter-aileron, even if applied prudently, in many jets will bring up the wing spoilers to drop the low wing rapidly, inducing adverse drag, requiring more power.

Second, the option of climbing or even flying level is constrained by the published missed approach: protected airspace may be below you if you are above the missed approach altitude. And laterally, not only is there often parallel traffic, there’s also dangerous terrain you must always monitor and stay clear of:


If you encounter wake effects in a level portion of the approach segment, prior to the aircraft ahead descending, at least you know his vortices will descend eventually below you and in this case, you normally feel the “burble” which now cues you: if the winds are keeping his wake aligned with your flight path, on glidepath you’re likely to fly into the tornadoes again when you’re slow and configured with speed-restricting flaps. Now look at the “mileage separation:” still think distance alone is enough? Still committing to the glidepath?

All of that doesn’t even consider the added, inevitable spoiler in every approach: weather. There’s more than terrain and aircraft for you to avoid in a very constrained airspace.


There’s really only one good answer: up. And “up” may be a s simple as “no more down,” meaning a stopped descent or a slight climb to exit the effects. In any case, if you’re below 1,000 feet you’re no longer “stable” per the mandatory requirements. If you’re above 1,000 feet, you’ve just been cued that the mileage interval, given the meteorological conditions, nonetheless has left you vulnerable to the adverse effects of wake turbulence–and you’re not going to proceed.

Which means, in the immortal words of my old friend the Chief Pilot at my airline addressing my 1991 class of Captain’s “Charm School” (officially, “Captain’s Duties & Responsibilities”) as we sat rapt: you’re going to “get the hell out of town.” Amen.


Back in the cabin? Expect the usual complaints about the delay for the second approach, plus a regular dose of exaggerated “there I was” tales about their wake turbulence encounter. So, don’t tell them–if you’ve done your avoidance and even escape properly, they’ll never know you even had a problem, which is the ultimate goal anyway: detecting and avoiding the problem in the first place.

The end result is, what they don’t know won’t hurt them, because you won’t let it. And that’s kind of why you get the privilege of flying the jet in the first place, isn’t it?


Flying into Hurrcane Sandy’s Wake

Posted in air travel, airline, airline pilot blog, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, jet, jet flight, passenger, pilot, weather with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 2, 2012 by Chris Manno

You get the call from Crew Schedule. You don’t have to take the flight–but you do: it’s time to bring jets back into the New York metro area, ravaged as it is by Hurricane Sandy.

Means a different kind of thinking for you: more fuel (you’ll take any excuse for more fuel, won’t you?) for more loiter time and options depending on the weather, because you know the navigation aids and ground-based approach equipment has been damaged or may be without power.

There are twenty deadheading crewmembers on the flight roster, needing to get home, plus a half dozen others trying to commute to the three crew bases there (LGA, EWR, JFK) not to mention tons (literally) of backlogged cargo waiting to head east. All of that raises the jet’s zero fuel weight, but fuel is primary. You get hit up by commuting crewmembers–“Can you agree to land with less fuel?” No, I shouldn’t, I can’t, I won’t. You’re the captain, so you’re the asshole; you’re the asshole, so you’re the captain: all you want to see when the gear goes down on final approach is plenty of fuel to go somewhere else if need be. What a dick.

The First Officer today is one of the guys I really like flying with: serious, quiet, pragmatic; ex-Navy fighter jock, good guy. He’s one hundred percent behind the “Fuel is God” philosophy. Makes it easier.

We blast across the southern United States, bang a left at Atlanta, head for Tidewater Virginia then up the coast. Sandy’s loafing her way north and west, leaving the curved cirrus as her calling card up the eastern seaboard.

We grab the high ground, the 40,000 foot level to keep the fuel burn low and the tailwind high. As soon as we turn north over Norfolk, we begin to pick up Sandy’s claw marks along the coastline: even from seven miles up, starting around northern the Maryland coast, the shore looks as if a giant hand had raked the sand from right to left, east to west, as Sandy’s hurricane-force roar washed the sea and sand inland.

Lower now, abeam Atlantic City, New Jersey, we’re peeking through cloud breaks in Sandy’s sloppy remnants, and the view is ugly: the shoreline is swept clean of anything man made, and you know from a hundred flight through here that the shoreline was much more “humanized” until Sandy clawed it clean.

Sinking through ten thousand feet, the disaster takes on a detailed face: boats piled in front of houses; the normal geometry of streets and blocks skewed by wreckage, things that don’t belong; jumbles of homes, cars, boats; you name it.

Sand driven blocks inland. Cars strewn akimbo. Roofs ripped off. No lights; no warning lights–and no navigation signals, due to no electricity. You see the couple of blocks burned to the ground by uncontrollable gas fires.

Humanity, flashing by at 160 miles per hour. I don’t have time to look–but I can’t help seeing the destruction below. These photos are courtesy of a deadheading flight attendant, taken sideways from the “A” seat just forward of the left wing.

No worries up front in the 21st-century jet: our navigation and approach guidance is all based on satellites, processed on board and projected right in front of my fat face:

We lumber to our gate, with a mixture of relief and satisfaction: we’ll get the normal jet service up and running once again, get people moving, unstranded, reunited, home.

And we’ll ferry another 160+ souls westbound, away from the storm and the shipwreck that is the northeast coast. There are crowds inside “Fort Kennedy” who are waiting like refugees to move west, to go home. We’ll do the fuel numbers, the flight performance calculations, the take-off numbers down to a rat’s ass to make it work–and work right. If; no–when that makes me the asshole again, so be it: we will be safe, we will fly smart.

We’ll get that bird’s eye, god’s eye view of the coast one more time, at dusk, and try not to worry–but how can you not?–that in the gathering darkness, there are few if any lights below. We put that behind us at .8 Mach, but the human face doesn’t go away no matter how high you climb or how fast you go.

Can’t help but feel for those left behind. And those you know, stalwarts of Jethead like Miss Giulia and her husband Mike, the voice of Jethead Live: the remnants of the super-hurricane are headed their way; Peggy Willenberger, stormchaser who has made such extreme weather her stock in trade; Cedar Glen–didn’t he mention Ohio once, now taking a pounding?

And the millions left behind, salvaging what they can, rebuilding. We’re a quiet ark sailing westward, away from the storm, to a different and better now for the lucky ones making their escape.

Keep the fires burning; navigate, light the way west. Do it right–that’s your job, your part in this journey. Follow the night sky home.

Summer Air Travel Disaster: “We” Collides with “Me”

Posted in airline, airline cartoon, airline pilot blog, flight attendant, flight crew, jet flight with tags , , , , , on May 25, 2012 by Chris Manno

Getting onto the jet about twenty minutes prior to pushback, I encounter an all-to-familiar scene: standing in the doorway to the cockpit is a man with a bag and a hopeful look on his face, flanked by two flight attendants giving me we tried to tell him looks.

“In this bag,” he tells me, pointing to his roll-aboard that’s about half again as large as the normal size limit, “I have $30,000 worth of fragile instruments. The suitcase is too large to fit in the overhead bin,” he continues, “so why can’t I just put it into the forward coat closet here?”

This is where his “me” collides with our “we:” I sure empathize with him regarding whatever he had in his bag. He’s thinking, in his mind, out of “me:” I have this stuff, I know what it is, I know it’s beyond the permitted size . . . me, me, and me.

That runs headlong into “we:” we are not permitted by the FAA to put anything other than crew bags in that closet ($5,000 fine for the forward flight attendant), we have a full flight, including five flight attendants whose bags already take up the allotted space for them in that closet. We already explained to you the carry-on size limits, and we have already heard what you’re going to ask next.

“Well,” he continues, after I politely point out that the closet is full of crew bags for the working crew plus a jumpseater, “Many times before they’ve let me put this behind the pilot’s seat up in the cockpit.”

I almost get nostalgic thinking back to the air travel days prior to 9-11, compared today’s world of underpants bombers, Air Marshals, pilots armed with 9mm handguns and bad people in far away countries relentlessly plotting to exploit our air travel system as a weapon of terror. That’s what we have to deal with, and we have had to change our way of thinking: there won’t be anything someone brings aboard that we’ll stow in the cockpit.

Because we as flying crewmembers have been mandated–and willingly adopt–a “group-think” that looks for threats in everything. Because we fly between 140 and 200 days a year and because we’ve been charged with stewardship of our air travel system and its security, never mind our own determination to see our families after our trip. And when you’re on board, you too are part of the “we” with everything at stake.

I take the easy way out. “We have a jumpseater in the cockpit today,” I tell him, “Sorry, but there’s no room for extra baggage.” For god’s sake, we’re not even allowed to carry critical parcels like organs for transplant any more in the cockpit–because you really don’t know what’s inside unless you open it–which we ain’t, and the flight deck is no place for surprises, period. I hate that, because I think of the organ transplant people involved at both ends of such a flight–but I never forget those on board nonetheless.

This goes beyond the obvious hassle for the other 159 passengers on board, many of whom are stuck on the jet bridge as boarding halts to deal with him. This goes beyond his disregard for those folks, their downline connections that depend on our prompt departures, and even beyond his claim to special storage space which, if a flight attendant bag was placed in the overhead bin, would deny another passenger space for his bag.

There’s more going on than that–which ought to be enough for any considerate passenger to avoid. Sure, Mr. “Critical Instruments” is only thinking out of his own world of “me,” putting us in the position of being in his “me-world,” the bad guys. But what he really needs to do is join the group-think that encircles his “me-world:” realize that the constraints apply to all, and that they are an inflexible necessity in this post-9/11 world. Join the “we” and make the trip smoother: we don’t expect to slip outside of the rules, we don’t expect to bend them, we don’t expect to be exempt.

I have to prove myself, despite my identification as the captain in command of the flight, by going through security screening like everyone else. You bet it’s a pain in my ass–god forbid if I were to actually access the cockpit–but I also embrace it: that’s the “we” that transcends the “me” for the betterment of all. Flight crew know this, so we do our part.

Yet honestly, sometimes we fail. I had an agent walk a passenger down the jetbridge before boarding in one of our smaller stations. The agent carried a briefcase-sized bag that was wrapped once or twice in cargo tape. “This man is a professional chef,” the agent informed me. “He requires this full set of chef’s knives to perform his duties, so I’ve sealed this case and he’s agreed to leave it in the overhead bin for the entire flight.”

Sigh. No, there will not be a full set of butcher knives and meat cleavers in the cabin–even wrapped in a few swipes of duct tape. When I put it that way, the agent returned to his senses, and rather sheepishly offered the normal procedure: “We can ship it as cargo, but not in the cabin.”

The fact that in 2012 we still have to have these conversations is troubling. Are we already forgetting the basic, albeit annoying sacrifices we must individually make in order to thwart those relentless dark forces looking for new ways to terrorize our nation through spectacular feats of evil?

Are we just going through the motions, but reserving exceptions in our own minds for ourselves, forgetting about the broad-based group-think that really only works if we forgo me for the best interest of all?

I sure hope not. But if we’ve already forgotten the hard lessons for which we’ve paid dearly in the recent past, if we’ve already through laziness or selfishness let down our guard, besides the fact that the bad guys win by default, one thing I can promise you is this: it’s going to be a long, hot, painful summer.

What I wouldn’t give to be proven wrong.

JetHead Live! with Fighter Pilot & Author Ed Rasimus

Posted in airline pilot blog, flight, jet, jet flight with tags , , on March 7, 2012 by Chris Manno

Ed Rasimus, author and a fighter pilot

with 250 combat missions over North Vietnam

discusses his role as co-author of “Fighter Pilot.”

To download and/or save, click here.

Never miss an episode–catch up on previous interviews.

Just click the iTunes icon below.

A Wing and a Prayer, and the Everlasting Moon.

Posted in air travel, airliner, airlines, flight crew, jet, jet flight, pilot with tags , , , , , on January 7, 2012 by Chris Manno

Only poets and saints have ever flown like this, riding a wing and a prayer. Darkness like sadness, spread to the end of the world, save the glow of cathode ray tubes painting the hearbeat of the seventy ton schooner, riding the howling eastbound jet stream.

That’s always a rush, surfing that gale, especially this time of year. But that’s what it takes, that’s what the 160 folks in back expect; never mind the details of turbulence and winds and fuel flow–those are yours to deal with alone. Just the way you like it.

You catch a glimpse back there now and again, but the view’s better ahead; quieter, a vortex of unseen electrical, pneumatic and hydraulic function, the lifeblood of the jet, blooming through the animated tapestry sprawled from bulkhead to bulkhead and overhead and nowadays you don’t know where the jet ends and you begin. Not that it matters: you’re comfortable in your second skin, aluminum and titanium, blood and bone–it’s one and the same for now.

And in the reassuring light of the cabin, what they don’t know won’t hurt them: through the night, an alabaster glow fires up the undercast ahead, swelling and spreading like a false dawn. The spectral blister swells to bursting and time reels backward for you–the western Pacific; the South China Sea, a world of time and distance ago.

Dark as deep space, a cloud deck below, the endless nothing above. Jets everywhere, formations in and out, stacked and you busy with courses and altitudes, your jet’s performance–then that ghostly glow below; angry rising–before you think you say it, as soon as you do you’d beg the words back on your life: “What the hell is that?

Ivory-bone light melts up through a swirling veil of striated cirrus laid like a blanket on the Korean countryside frozen cold in the dead of winter.

“The moon,” comes the deadpan reply from another aviator. And you just let that smolder and die in the darkness; betrayed by the indifferent moon climbing it’s sky arc just like you did yours. What the hell–we’re pals–we’re going to be, through thousands of air miles over years and skies around the globe.

And it’s the aviation childhood still: less than a thousand hours of flight time; everything’s a wonder, an answered prayer or a silent wish playing out across a thousand miles at Mach speed. Like today: major league tailwind drives the groundspeed up to nearly 700mph.

Unseen from above, the miles past so fast sometimes. And that glow below, now a thousand years later and as many miles hence, you just know. Time to start down–just as your old friend climbs up. We’ll trade spots in the sky, share one more curtain call.

And surely we’ll cross paths again, however many more times we can. No surprise now–but just as stunningly bright as ever. It’s all too familiar, but in a good way: a wing and a prayer and the everlasting moon; the the essence of flight that never loses its brightness.

From flying fighter jets in the Netherlands to the captain’s seat on a KLM jetliner, Captain Martin Leeuwis has done a lifetime of amazing flying.

We go one-on-one with him on our audio podcast next week.

And later this month: 3-time space shuttle astronaut Mike Mullane joins us on JetHead Live.

Subscribe now for updates!

Airline Flying 101: Anatomy of a Take-off.

Posted in air travel, airliner, airliner take off, jet flight, pilot with tags , , , , on January 2, 2012 by Chris Manno

Take-off? That’s easy, right? You fasten your safety belt, move your seat fully upright and stow your tray table. Ready. Right?

Not even.

But if that’s the full extent you prefer to be aware of, fine. Otherwise, read on as we take apart this very complex, important maneuver.

The planning starts long before you strap yourself into your seat in the back of the plane, and here’s why.

Take-offs come in all sizes and shapes because of several variables–so there’s no “one size fits all” logic or protocol. What are the variables? Well, aircraft weight, runway length, winds, runway surface condition and temperature are the basics, and each has an effect on performance.

You might think runway length is the great reliever, right? Miles of runway, like at DFW or Denver mean simple, low-risk performance, right?

And you might think a short runway or nasty weather are the “problem children” of take-off performance. But let me give you the pilot answers: no, no, and furthermore, no.

Throw out what you’ve been thinking about take-offs as a passenger, and strap in tight (is that tray table up? is Alec Baldwin playing “Words” in the lav while we all wait for His Highness to finish?) because you’re about to test drive some “pilot think:”

I don’t worry about taking off–I worry about stopping.

Why? This sounds so simple that when you think about it, you’ll have to agree: aircraft are made to fly–not drag race.


Look, accelerating 85 tons to nearly 200 miles per hour builds tremendous kinetic energy. Not a problem for the landing gear if you take off because it’s simply rolling. But if you must stop, the brakes and wing-located speed brakes have to dissipate that energy within the length of the asphalt ahead.  The runway length is finite, the aircraft weight is unchangeable once you’re rolling. So where is the point of no return, the point after which there’s not enough runway to stop?

Brakes are key--and checked visually before EVERY take-off.

As a pilot–particularly as the captain who makes every go-no go decision no matter which pilot is actually flying–you must know when that instant occurs. That magic point is not a distance down the runway but rather, a maximum speed: “Refusal Speed.” In other words, the maximum speed to which we can accelerate and still stop within the confines of the runway if we choose to abort the take-off.

But there’s a catch, of course.

Refusal Speed is only half of the go-no go decision. Part Two is just as critical: what is the minimum speed I must have in order to take-off if one engine fails, continuing on the other. I can hear this already: why the hell would you want to continue the take-off on one engine?

To which I’d answer back, what if the failure happens above Refusal Speed? In other words, there’s not enough runway ahead to stop your high-speed tricycle.

Okay, that minimum speed–the speed you must have in order to continue the take-off in the remaining runway on one engine–is called “Critical Engine Failure Speed.”

All of the performance numbers for each unique take-off are computed, with corrections for the many variables to be made by the pilots.

Now you have the two controllers of the go-no go decision; one a minimum speed (you must have Critical Engine failure Speed achieved to continue safely into the air) and one a maximum (if you attempt to abort in excess of Refusal Speed–you ain’t stopping on the runway).

So which is the deciding factor? Well, in modern day jets under average circumstances, the “max” speed is normally way in excess of the “min” speed. In other words, you normally achieve the min required for single-engine continued take-off before you reach the max allowed for stopping. So, in ordinary circumstances, Decision Speed–which we call V1–is Refusal Speed.

In other words, we know we’ll secure adequate flying speed for a single-engine take-off before we hit the max abort speed. So we use the max abort speed–Refusal Speed–for V1.

Pilot-think lesson one: it’s easier to deal with a single-engine aircraft in the air than it is to stop a freight train on the runway. Which goes back to my earlier point: airliners fly great but make only adequate drag racers, stopping on the drag strip remaining being the challenge.

Single-engine take-off, or high speed abort?

Add to that the wild card: the captain must decide in a split second as you’re rolling toward V1 if any malfunction that occurs will affect the ability to stop the jet: did an electrical system failure kill the anti-skid system required for max braking? Did a hydraulic failure eliminate the wing spoilers figured into the stopping distance?

Some jets require very little system support to fly–but a lot of factors to stop: the MD80 will fly all day without hydraulics, electrics or pneumatics–but it ain’t stopping on a “balanced field” without electrics and hydraulics.

Hydraulically actuated wing spoilers are figured into the stopping distance.Get my pilot-prespective regarding my preference to take a wounded jet into the air rather than wrestle it to a stop on a runway?

And remember, those speeds are “perfect world” scenarios. But on your flight–like every flight–despite the engineering numbers from which the stopping distance is computed, there are the real life factors which screw them up: wet or icy runway, tailwind, old tires, old brakes, rubber on the runway because of aircraft touchdown on landings.

Not a problem on an average day, but corrections to the numbers and your pilot-think must be made if any of those variables are present.

Now, have you deduced the worst-case scenario with the two controlling speeds, Critical Engine failure Speed and Refusal Speed? That is, you will exceed the max speed for stopping before you attain the minimum speed for single-engine flight?

That’s simple: you can’t take-off. In practice, we adjust the flap setting or even reduce the gross weight: back to the gate–some cargo and/or passengers must come off. Hardly ever happens that we return to the gate because we plan ahead–and that’s why you hear of a flight being “weight restricted,” meaning some seats will be empty by requirement before you even board. Now you know why.

But really, that’s not even the worst case scenario from a pilot’s perspective (sorry about your trip, if you’re one of the passengers left behind on a weight restricted flight–but you probably got some compensation for it). Rather, it’s when the two numbers are the same.

That is, the minimum speed required for flight is equal to the max speed for stopping.

That’s called a “Balanced Field:” the runway distance required to accelerate to minimum single-engine take-off speed is also the maximum velocity from which you can safely abort and stop on the runway.

That’s a “short runway” problem, like in LaGuardia, Burbank, Washington National or Orange County, right?

Wrong–it’s everywhere, like Denver’s 14,000 feet of runway (compared to LaGuardia’s 7,000) on a hot summer day; ditto DFW; also Mexico City even on a cool day because it’s at 7,500 feet elevation. And it can occur anywhere due to rain, ice or snow.

So here’s your plan, and as pilot-in-command, you’d better have this tattooed into your brain on every take-off: once you enter the high-speed abort regime (by definition, above 90 knots), know what you will abort for–or continue the take-off. Be ready for both–without hesitation.

LaGuardia: 7,000' between you and Flushing Bay.

It’s easier to decide what you will abort for than won’t–because the “must stops” outnumber the “can stops” and remember your pilot think: it’s often safer to continue than stop. And here are my Big Four Must Stops: engine fire, engine failure, windshear or structural failure.

So rolling past 90, I’m thinking over and over, “engines, engines, engines,” zeroing in on any malfunction in order to assess if it’s an engine problem–if not, it’s likely not a “must stop” situation; I’m aware of windshear but don’t even start the take-off roll with any of the conditions present; structural damage we’ll deal with as necessary. Otherwise, we’re flying, folks.

Got all that? Good deal: now you understand the important interrelationship between Critical Engine Failure Speed, Refusal Speed and the all important concept of V1.

And now that you understand the complex, split-second conditions surrounding the go-no go decision on your next take-off, you can relax and just put all of those crucial factors out of your mind.

Because rest assured, they’re at the forefront of mine, or that of whatever crew into whose hands you’ve entrusted your life.

Special Note:
Coming in 2012–The JetHead Podcast! Interviews with real pilots, hands-on first-person  descriptions of airline piloting and aircraft flying from the folks on the front lines of commercial aviation!

Subscribe to JetHead to receive notice of podcasts now in production!

Run higher, fly stronger–beat the heat.

Posted in endurance running, jet flight, wildfires with tags , , on August 28, 2011 by Chris Manno

Gonna spend some time out in the blue? Well here’s the reality of the extremes you’ll endure and exactly how you’ll handle them: you either let the sun run you or vice versa. There’s a schedule, there are miles between here and there and the only question remain is how to deal with the temperature that impacts performance sure as the heat shimmers in waves above the pavement. Make it happen, challenge the distance–carefully.

Doesn’t really cool off much as the day goes on, so deal with it. Thread pacing into the fabric, know the performance factors affecting your forward progress, and “git ‘er done:” road miles first, then air miles. Seems to help make sitting strapped into a jet easier to endure if you’ve put in a good five or six road miles before the flight.

Yeah, it’s hot, but who’s getting up early to run, especially when you have to fly late? Mock the sun: endure. A raggedy south wind like a feeble blow dryer sighs among the baked scrub brush and and straw-ish grass–so you’d best set out north, saving the light breeze for the last half.  Now a cloud in the sky so you can’t determine the winds aloft but at the surface it looks like the airport will be on a south flow; visualize the steps ahead: performance data, know the optimum flap configurations, power settings–they’re different on a day like this.

Try not to think about the aches of the last miles, look ahead. Give it at least ten minutes to smooth out, for everything to loosen up–sun-baked steadiness, that’s the key. Patience.

A stretch of flat miles, but don’t look too far down the road. Let the cadence of each step blend into the next, riding rather than pushing it–there are many miles to go. Lots of others out here too–can’t avoid the heat, everyone has to move sensibly, aware of the changes forged of the heat, wary of signs of stress.

Sitting in a gazebo-like cockpit  instantly kicks in the reflex to conserve movement as much as possible, because everything contributes to the rise in core temperature that only makes the trip more difficult. No wasted motion, breathing steady, the minutes pass like cadenced footfalls over flat miles. Sun shades, sun screen but still you feel the deep rays like a heavy blanket.

It’s all about the stride, stay in it. Breathing, like the rhythm section: become a finely tuned machine and butt out: just stride and stride again. Manage the core temp, always in touch because there’s a redline you have to stay south of if you’re going to endure.

Something about flying, like running, that becomes so much about handling the heat. How many years in fire-resistant flight suits, Nomex gloves even in the hottest cockpit, thinking about how it would be smart to endure the discomfort of the gloves and rolled down sleeves considering the fact that you’re sitting atop tons of jet fuel? Flight surgeon once said, “Be showered before your flight–makes any burn treatment you might need less prone to infection.” And we were all footprinted: they figured to I.D. you that way if needed because your boots might be all that survives burning jet fuel. Nice

Own the path ahead, heat or no heat. You know the limits, stay within. Climbout is always energy-critical, especially in summer. Need to see the positive trend in energy.

Feels like everything’s on fire–because it is. The sun has baked the ground far and wide and made kindling of the face of the earth. Smoke curls away and drapes a swath hundreds of miles behind it across the western sky. The plume and pall becomes so large that it actually creates its own weird weather with wraithish tendrils of smoke like a sorcerer’s spell exchanging heat with the sky.

Heat’s gotta go somewhere, refuses to be dismissed and even at 40,000 feet, the turbulence of the confused air bumped up by the hellish, unnatural convection makes for a choppy road. You keep your concentration, finding smoother, softer spots for the jet and its footfalls westbound.

Even if it wasn’t bumpy, it makes you want to run a few miles out of the way to avoid the spectral gouly-ness you wish was a mirage. But that’s the nature of the sun and earth and and the march of seasons: it’s baked and cracked year-round and you have to use your head to make your passage, one footfall at a time on the dirt or miles-per-minute in the sky. Either way, the heat, the relentless sun and time mean business.

There’s water, but there’s also miles of pancaked earth to cross one step at a time to find it, so you’d better pace yourself for the long run. And sometimes it’s so deep that you just have to take on faith that it’s there–the scar says so, but you’d have to look close to find a drop.

Time is the friend of distance as much as it’s the ally of the earth: patience, pacing, you get there. Change comes, heat gives way to a slower cool, one that is as much from the slower heart rate, the darkening turn of the day, and the inevitable exchange of elements between air, water and dry land. Count on it, pace yourself, endure: there will be more miles tomorrow.


Note: Thinking about heat and the sky–running a 15K on Labor Day, flying and training in the blazing Texas heat because I’m too lazy to get up early for either.

Flying Home.

Posted in air travel, airline cartoon, flight, jet flight with tags , , , , , , on August 13, 2011 by Chris Manno

No matter who you are and which way you’re pointed, somehow, you’re going home. Maybe not now, but eventually and the place defines where you’re bound. Because what’s ahead is most clearly determined by what’s behind; where you’re going by where you’re from. Really, there’s no “to” without a “from,” and the ultimate “to,” the eventual “at last,” is always home.

A lot of home, then, is in the leaving and sometimes you can see it clearly; sometimes you can’t. But you can appreciate the separation when it happens before your eyes, though you try not to look. There’s a bit of loss ahead, if only for a moment but it’s there, reinforcing the value of home carried aboard in every parting.

Other times, home just about comes along for the trip.

Little ones travel like rock stars, trailed by adult roadies hauling enough of home to make it so for the kids. Now that’s okay to look at, refreshing, almost, in the world of to and from: home is parents caring for kids, being a family. That’s almost enough to make up for the home more often left behind with family too; distance being more than just a measurement.

In that case–maybe even more so than in the families dragging “home” through an airport–you can see what’s left behind and it’s even more powerful often than what’s immediately ahead. Because home throughout the miles is always ahead, eventually.

But there’s not always unlimited miles to go, you have to realize.

Yes, home is home but there aren’t always more miles ahead than behind on the journey. That’s not always easy to acknowledge, but it’s true. We’re all along for the ride, however many miles that entails and whichever way you want to cross them.

But some of us are just tagging along for all the miles. And when you realize the journey for what it is, day after day, mile after mile, you come to see the reality, the duality of the crossing: there’s doing it–then there’s living it.

Here’s the plain old doing: plans and performance, weight and balance, thrust, speed, lift, ceiling, cruise winds, fuel flow, amen.

Everyone’s underway, doing whatever they do, going wherever they will, being whoever they are, and living the miles how ever they do. Probably it’s not easy if the ride is all you’re along for, enduring the here to there, mindful (or not) of miles to go and the distance to or from home nonetheless.

Still I’d like to think that there’s more I can do in the actual flying to make the journey more than just a death march en route. Besides the safe passage at shotgun speed and above and beyond the course and track.

If nothing else–at least after sufficient java–I can live it out, rather than just do the job. Someone on board should do more than just endure. Someone should transcend the details and grasp the height and speed of the journey, the distance between here and there and the island of now between where and when.

Yeah, we’re miles above the thunderheads–doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the swelling curves of colossal power and beauty back lit by the retreating sun. With the lightest touch–so you won’t notice in back–I steer between the valleys trenching the boiling stacks and darting lightning exchanged between angry towers.

So much to go around; so much we go over but no matter what, we’re on the way as fast as we can practically get “there,” aren’t we? Might was well do more than just endure: let’s inhabit the ride.

We can do some wide-angle musing over the monolithic man made  greatness which, from the god’s-eye view, seems delicately intricate and much less significant on the grand scale of creation. That passes quickly, inevitably.

There’s always the seductive magnificence of disaster playing out on a epic scale below, a detailed tapestry scrolling below.

I mean, why not? It’s all between here and “home” anyway, between you and whenever, wherever you finally find home. Sure, your compass whether you realize it or not always points to and from–that’s how you know where you are, based on a straight line from where you’ve been.

But that doesn’t mean you have to stop “being” along the way, especially since often you get there sooner than you think due to factors like an unseen tailwind virtually undetected from 7 miles above the dirt, but pushing you along nonetheless. Then “there” comes abruptly, arriving in ways you might not have considered, bringing you home one last time.

Home, eventually, in the business of to and from has a certain finality; the journey a finite continuity. The flight is more than just science, although it’s every bit of that. The enduring legacy is the journey lived, the hours on the wing, and the appreciation of reality of flight, over and over, higher, faster and wide-eyed throughout.

For those who fly–that truly is home.

Airport Smackdown: Jethead vs. LaGarbage

Posted in air travel, airline delays, airliner, airlines, airport, flight, flight crew, flight delays, jet, jet flight, passenger, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 20, 2011 by Chris Manno

What better to beat the blistering heat of a Jethroplex summer than a float in your own ce-ment pond? You bid the later-in-the-day flights and you’re senior enough to hold them. That means the morning run–helps you sit still for the 6 or 7 hours you’ll be in the air–and an early afternoon swim. Then, reality check waiting on the iPhone:

You knew that. LaGarbage today, tomorrow too–then LAX the next day. That’s your work week. Get ready.

That’s the current radar picture in the New York metro area. The stuff just north of Tom’s River will be a problem if it doesn’t move out to sea. You can tell there’s a front line between Jersey and NYC somewhere–just look at the temperature difference. Cold air slipping under warm air produces big boomers, and it doesn’t take much of that to disrupt the inbound flow to Kennedy, Newark and of course, LaGuardia. Shrug. Deal with it when you get there–but prepare for it before you take-off: more fuel.

Of course, that’s a double-edged sword too: LaGuardia is a short runway with virtually no overrun on either end–just Flushing Bay. No, it’s not as extremely short as Burbank, John Wayne-Orange County or The Dreaded 33 in Washington (5,000′). But it’s short enough–especially if it’s wet–to make landing weight important. DFW: 13,000 feet of concrete, overruns and clear zones beyond. LaGarbage? A friction overlay on the end of 22 and 13, (wanna test that out?) murky water everywhere else.

Preserve your options: arrive with enough fuel for holding and a go-around. The 737 is a good stopping jet–as is the MD80–and the 737 is very stable on approach. No big worries about airspeed control or pitch.

Confer with Flight Dispatch: they have you flight planned in the mid-thirty thousands because of previously reported chop. Fine, but we’ll check ahead en route and decide if we can’t cruise higher and save more fuel. Plus, our route will arc north, then east, picking up more tailwind as we go. Should put us over upstate New York fat on fuel.

Board 160 passengers. Preflight. Taxi out. Climb.

Life settles down to cruise: fuel flow, ETAs, routing. As expected, the ride is reported smooth in the low 40s by aircraft there now, so we climb and save more fuel, plus put ourselves above most of the weather trying to build itself into the stratosphere from the sun’s climbing radiance.

Radar watch is beginning to turn up signs of the frontal clash converging on the northeast. Super radar–good picture out beyond 300 miles, has it’s own GPS so it knows where all topographical features are and screens them out of the radar image. Good to be sure that what we’re seeing is nothing but weather.

Lunch? Dinner? Whatever–it’s the last food you’ll see today. Everything at LaGarbage will either be closed or out beyond security, which you don’t have time for: they’ll be clamoring to board 160 passengers outbound as soon as you get there. Speaking of which, within an hour of landing, we can get the current weather at LaGuardia and print it out:

Fine. Planning on 22; landing south and into the wind, no real storm threats or complications. Set up nav aids, discuss the approach with the F/O. Verify the runway in the Flight Management System (FMS) and the Heads Up Display (HUD). Validate all of the altitude and airspeed restrictions on the arrival.

The FMS begins its backward countdown of miles to go and upward count of vertical velocity required to satisfy the arrival restrictions. Cool?

Not so fast. Just checking onto a new frequency and you hear holding instructions being given to some unlucky aircraft. Now, that either means someone south of you (Atlanta? Philly?) or someone north (Boston?) has an inbound backup. Or–it’s New York Center airspace that’s enjoying a traffic jam at altitude. You bring up the holding page on the FMS display. Here it comes.

“American 738, hold west as published at MIGET. Expect further clearance at  0115.” Figures. Well, okay–holding endurance? Like you haven’t thought of that already. At altitude, we’re at an incredibly low fuel burn.

We can loiter for the better part of an hour. One thing about EFCs (Expect Further Clearance) you can count on is–you can’t count on them. So plan accordingly. On your side is your altitude, fuel flow and fuel reserve. The jets cruising lower enter holding there and burn more fuel as a result. Set up the entry and the hold:

EFCs are a best guess by Air Traffic Control, but they can be very pessimistic. Even if you can’t hold as long as they predict, you can hold till your endurance runs out and you need to bingo (divert to your alternate). Some pilots I know like to “Go Ugly Early:” if you think there’s a good chance you’ll have to divert, beat the rush for fuel and a turnaround at the divert station.

I’d rather stay high and slow and see what shapes up. We all still divert when you reach Bingo fuel, it’s just a difference in strategy.

New York Center is offering “Rockdale,” a navigation point north of  LaGarbage and in Boston Center’s airspace. Get released from holding immediately and approach from the north is the deal they’re offering, and some jets are taking it. I don’t think so; we have a good, high altitude perch here with a low fuel burn. Rockdale requires a lower cruise, inevitably, with higher burn–and no guarantees when you get there. Sure, maybe Boston Center has less aircraft but you still have to eventually get sequenced into new York Center’s flow.

It’s like switching lines at the grocery store: pick the short line and someone will need a price check or will have a zillion coupons to verify. Meanwhile, some jets below are starting to Go Ugly early–Philly’s going to be a mess. And the winds are shifting at LaGarbage–they’re switching landing runways:

Refiguring the approach is not a big deal. But it’s a bad sign: runway changes take time and lead to a huge backup on the ground at LaGuardia. Plus shifting winds mean unpredictable weather due to frontal passage. Alright, plan “B” is the runway 4 approach. Reprogram the FMSs, the courses and the nav radios.

Holding is eating up fuel, which is actually easing the stopping distance–but check it anyway. And use the chart for a wet runway while you’re at it. Figure on the worst case and the most Autobrakes, say 3 or maybe even max.

More jets at the bottom of the stack are heading for Philly; we’re still sound fuel-wise. Patience.

Finally! Released from holding, cleared downline. Do the numbers: what fuel will you arrive with but more importantly, assuming a go-around at LGA, what will you land with at JFK (that’s the plan) after? Numbers show actually about a 1-2 thousand pound surplus. Perfect.

Now we’re committed–not going to climb back into the enroute sector (too much fuel burn). And now the glass shows what the radar has been painting.

The ugly blotches here are actually the towering cumulus we’re sinking into here:

Already have the crew strapped in, all passengers down. Actually, the bad weather is a relief in a way: everything slows down as radar separation is increased. Plus, the approach is a straight-in, precision approach rather than the hairpin visual approach that is officially called the “Expressway Visual:”

Lots more fun from a pilot standpoint, but definitely more hectic. Finally, the wide swing to finally. Configure. In the slot: altitude, airspeed, configuration, glide slope, localizer.

Minimums: see the runway, land carefully; immediate reverse.

Now, the elephant walk to the gate. Park.

No time for relaxing–it all starts again in 50 minutes, outbound with another 160 passengers impatiently waiting to board. The inbound holding and the LaGarbage ground congestion has already set us behind schedule, and passengers have connections to make at DFW.

That’s the workday–only another 1300 air miles to go. Let’s get to work.

Summer air travelers, beware: he’s out there!

Posted in air travel, airline delays, airliner, airlines, airport, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, flight delays, jet, jet flight, passenger, travel, travel tips with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 8, 2011 by Chris Manno

Summer air travelers, beware: he’s out there.

I mean that guy. The one who will make your travel a little less pleasant, probably unknowingly, but still.

For example, cruising at 40,000 feet northwest bound, the cabin interphone chimes. The First Officer and I exchange glances that ask hot, cold, or stupid? It’s too soon for crew meals—that’s where we’re stupid for eating them, but it’s something to do—and only minutes ago someone called to say it’s too hot in back.

Traditionally, within minutes, one of the other four Flight Attendants who don’t seem to be able to talk to each other will call and say it’s too cold.

But I answer the phone and this time, it’s stupid: “We just found a passport in seatback 30-A.” No, it’s not the flight attendant that’s stupid—it’s the passenger who on some previous flight for some odd reason decided to stash his passport in the seatback pocket.

Before our flight, the jet had come in from JFK. Maybe an international arrival, and now someone is enroute somewhere without a passport.

That’s where you come in: you’re in line at Mexican Customs in Los Cabos, and you’re sweating like a fat lady in a vinyl chair, waiting, waiting, waiting—because the guy ahead of you in line talking to the taciturn Customs agent is suddenly aware that he doesn’t have a passport. Your vacation is on hold just a little longer because like me in the super market, you got in the wrong line (“Price check on lane seven!”) while passengers to your right and left are breezing through and claiming their luggage (and maybe yours), heading for the beach.

Sure, it’s going to be worse for him—without a passport he’s not getting back into the United States without a major hassle and, you hope as payback for your delay, a strip search. But the lingering question is, why would anyone put anything of value in a seatback pocket on a plane?

But you’d be amazed at what you’d find back there after a flight. Well, what someone else would find back there: I’d sooner stick my hands into a trash can in a crack den than risk the snot rags and barf bags or kids’ diapers or half eaten ham sandwich that will be stuffed in there.


Still, people for some odd reason nonetheless sit down, empty their pockets, stash wallet, iPod, keys, camera, travel documents, passport—you name it, into the seatback pocket as if it were their glove compartment on their family car (okay, there may be a ham sandwich in mine, I admit).

Never mind the hassles going forward to recover a lost item, a headache made all the more difficult because the jet will crisscross several thousand of miles before the discovery of a missing item is made (call the lost and found in Seattle, Chicago and New York). The important thing is that the Stupid One is delaying your vacation.

And unbeknownst to you—he may already have delayed you. Remember sitting at the gate well past departure time? I can’t tell you how many times five or ten minutes from pushback to a resort destination in Mexico or the Caribbean when the agent steps into the cockpit and says “we have a problem.”

Let me guess: someone confirmed on the flight is in a bar somewhere starting on the umbrella drinks and about to miss their flight to the actual resort. Why? Because they can’t read a ticket? Don’t know their own itinerary? Can’t do the math on a time zone change? Are intellectually low functioning and were finished off by the TGI Friday’s Bloody Marys in the airport bar?

Doesn’t really matter. The point is, if they’re not on board we get to sit at the gate while the ground crew sorts through the cargo compartments crammed with the luggage of 160 passengers to pull their bags off. That takes a while. You get to wait, I get to wait, both of our days becomes a little longer.

Yes, it’s the lowest common denominator that dictates when we leave and when you arrive in paradise.

But there is justice in the situation, as I witnessed once at a departure gate as I waited for my inbound jet. Airport police officers had pulled a couple off to the side as passengers boarded a jet for Cancun.

Apparently the man and woman had been to the airport bar, and the man had clearly had a few too many. Federal law prohibits the boarding of any passenger who even appears to be intoxicated, and the airline agents had done the right thing: when in doubt, call law enforcement to sort out the situation in accordance with the law.

Sorry ma’am,” I heard an officer say as the man was being detained, “he’s going to be placed under arrest for public intoxication.”

I couldn’t hear the exact back and forth between the steamed woman and the officers, but in the end, it seemed the officers weren’t the cause of her anger: she grabbed her boarding pass, shot a pointed glance back at her handcuffed partner—then boarded the flight.

Just as well: he’d probably realize in the Customs line in Mexico that his passport was missing anyway.

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