In the wake of several recent airliner losses, talk in the media once again turns to the futuristic concept of remotely piloted passenger jets.
A very bad idea, as I explain on Mashable.com. Just click here to read, or use the link below.
“That’s some catch, that Catch-22.” –Captain Yossarian, Catch-22
Here’s the deal, captain: you’re flying a 65 ton jet into Orange County airport, the famously short 5,700 foot runway. The stopping distance required there is increased drastically if that runway is wet–and yesterday, “wet” was an understatement: Los Angeles was drenched in a ten-year storm dumping inches of rain in a matter of hours.
And here’s the catch: you want to have the least amount of fuel–which is weight–on board for landing to permit stopping on the short, rain-slicked runway, but at the same time, as much as possible for a divert if necessary to Los Angeles International Airport or to Ontario Airport, both of which have long runways.
But it gets worse. The best bet for a diversion is Ontario, because the inbound air traffic is light compared to always busy LAX. But you’ve been watching on radar two thunderstorms sitting exactly on the top of Ontario, hardly moving. LAX is reporting heavy rain which means inbound delays and you know from experience that the inbound LAX air traffic flow includes many long-haul flights from Asia, Europe and points beyond. You don’t want to elbow into their already depleted fuel reserves.
Here’s your set of decisions: who will fly the approach at SNA? It must be done perfectly, given the conditions, which are reported as 1 1/2 mile visibility in fog and heavy rain, with 200 foot ceiling. The touchdown must be exactly on the right spot–neither too early nor too late–and exactly on speed, if we’re to stop on the remaining runway.
What is your plan: SNA, and then what? No holding fuel–on a missed approach, you can either try again, or divert to Ontario (thunderstorm overhead) or LAX.
You already know landing in a thunderstorm at Ontario is a poor choice. And you know, realistically, you don’t have the fuel to handle the air miles entry into the LAX landing sequence will require. A second try? Not even.
Here’s what I chose on each question. First, I had the F/O fly the approach. Why, when it had to be done exactly perfectly under bad conditions? The answer is, because he damn well knows how to fly an ILS, in any circumstances. If he flies the approach, fully investing in the stick-and-rudder attention demands which are large, I can focus on the big picture: what’s the Ontario storm doing? Watching LAX too on radar. Updating SNA winds, our fuel, our position.
Above ten thousand feet, we talk. I tell him what I’m thinking, then ask: what am I missing? Tell me your ideas? And as importantly, are you okay flying the approach? Because a bad night of sleep, a sore shoulder, anything–if you’re not up to this, I’ll do it.
And we have one shot, I tell him, then I’m putting clearance on request (actually did that as soon as we were switched to tower frequency) to Ontario. If the storm looks impassable on radar, option 3 is declare an emergency for fuel and barge into the LAX landing sequence. Don’t like that idea, but if we’re down to option 3, there is no other choice.
I also plot the magic number for SNA winds: 110 degrees and 290 degrees. For the precision landing runway, any wind beyond those two cardinal points strays into the verboten tailwind area. Asked about landing the other direction and the answer was: long delay. Not possible, for us.
Already requested and had the data linked chart for our landing weight sent up to the aircraft: we require 5,671 feet on a wet runway, good braking, zero tailwind. Each knot of tailwind adds 150 to the distance required, so even one knot of tailwind exceeds the runway length.
I switch my nav display from a compass arc to a rose: the full 360 display. I’m getting wind checks all the way down final and watching my cardinal points, alert for an excedence.
There’s a wind display on my HUD, too, but I realize that’s a calculation that is at least 15 seconds old. Eyeballs and experience tell the tale: he’s glued mostly to his instruments to fly a flawless ILS, but I’m mostly eyeballs-outside, monitoring speed, azimuth and glide path through the HUD, but paying attention to the realtime wind cues. He knows if I don’t like what I see, I’ll say, “Go-around” and we will be on to option 2 immediately. I know that if he doesn’t like the way the approach is going, he’ll announce and fly the go-around without any questions from me.
I tell him that if everything is stable on approach, let’s make a final wind analysis at 200 feet. If we’re both satisfied, silence means we’re both committed to landing.
I review in my head the rejected landing procedure. That is, if we touch down but I judge we can’t stop, throttle max, speed brakes stowed, flaps fifteen, forward trim, back into the air.
Clear your mind, focus on the plan: hate math, but I can sure see the compass depiction that means a verboten tailwind. Poor viz in heavy rain, but once I spot the VASIs, I can tell what the wind is doing to us. He’s flying a hell of a good approach. One final wind check at 200 feet. “That’s within limits,” I say, just to let him know that component is fine. He’s flying–if it doesn’t feel right, I want him to feel free to go-around immediately.
I don’t want to see high or low on either glide path or speed. No worries–he’s nailed it, both are stable.
A firm touchdown, then my feelers are up for hydroplaning: none. Speedbrakes deploy, but we’re not committed until reverse thrust. The MAX brakes grab hold, good traction; we’re fine, reverse thrust, I take over at 100 knots.
Silence in the cockpit. “Excellent job,” I say as we clear the runway, glad we didn’t have to execute either backup plan. Relief, Boeing has built us a damn fine, stable jet for this weather, this day, this runway.
Now, put that all behind–we still have to fly out of here in less than an hour. And do it all again tomorrow.
“If we couldn’t laugh we would all go insane.” –Jimmy Buffet
Government leaders are frantic to do something, anything, to assuage concern about the potential spread of Ebola. But air travel is neither the problem nor the solution.
Nonetheless, the government answer is, as in so many crises, that even doing a useless thing is better than doing nothing. So we now have “increased screening” at several airports, including JFK. But the problem is, the Ebola patient who died recently in Dallas arrived from Brussels, while the increased screening targets passengers arriving from Liberia, Sierra Leonne, and Guinea. One connection later, as in his case, the possibility of detection is beyond the “new” screening.
Meanwhile, no mention is made of special screening of international arrivals in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, all of which have seaports and airports with regular international arrivals from Europe, Asia and the Middle East. The Dallas Ebola carrier could just as easily have entered the US on the west coast–or through DFW, Chicago or Miami for that matter–with no additional “screening.” And the notion that increasing screening at certain airports is the solution sidesteps the fact that a traveler could arrive in Mexico City or Toronto and simply drive or walk across the border; or, working a cargo, tanker or cruise ship, simply enter through any seaport. Again, it’s not air travel, it’s global mobility that is the vulnerability.
In any case, the special new air travel screening is really little more than a drug store twenty dollar digital thermometer and a lot of self-reporting. That charade is more theater than medicine, as Ebola has proven time and again, lying dormant well past the initial examination. The “enhanced” screening ignores the majority of the arrivals, and has a limited accuracy due to the incubation period of the disease, for the small minority of international arrivals who are screened. And there’s no special screening for the enormous flow of rail, sea or motor transportation across our borders.
And even worse yet, the lynchpin of the “enhanced” screening procedure is truthful answers to posed questions. The Dallas Ebola carrier simply didn’t report his exposure in order to enable his travel and the new “temperature check” wouldn’t have–and didn’t, as he departed Africa–detect the latent disease anyway.
Given the high profile of Ebola as news media rush to cover and broadcast a “scare,” it was inevitable that panic would attend an incident of vomiting on an airplane. But the reality is, passengers getting airsick is as old as air travel itself. I used to take it personally as a pilot, as if I’d somehow not flown smoothly enough. That was until I noted that even just taxiing out from Las Vegas or New Orleans was often attended by hangover puking in the cabin. Now, however, this typical, ugly occurrence warrants a Hazmat response, plus YouTube and Twitter coverage of the unfortunate event.
The crossroads of Ebola and air travel is a cataclysm of the news media at its worst and social media at its best: the tail wags the dog as regular news sources struggle to keep up with the instantaneous digital grapevine of Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube.
In the end, cable and broadcast media abdicate their responsibilities to investigate and report facts and simply show random, unmediated Tweets and video clips and call it news. As a nation we’re all the worse for indulging in group hysteria, but it seems that nothing is more important for an individual with a cellphone than a shot at the Andy Warhol fifteen minutes of fame which the desperate-for-headlines news media recklessly offers. Culture, unfortunately, trumps common sense and journalistic ethics.
Meanwhile, the government implements showy passenger screening changes for air travel only and calls that prevention, neglecting any meaningful intervention in a global threat by attacking the disease itself. That in a nutshell is the hopeless tragicomedy that is the “first world” public and government response to a deadly plague.
Because while the media microscope is trained on flights and “screening,” the root cause languishes in the background. In reality, controlling global mobility by all modes, and developing a vaccine is the right strategy. But that sensible call to action seldom heard above the media uproar about air travel. Which only confirms for me what a very wise woman I know is wont to say: “We are a nation of idiots.”
So as Jimmy Buffet suggested, we might as well laugh about it while we can, or at least until someone finally (if ever) looks beyond air travel and focuses on a real containment strategy, plus a vaccine. Because as I’ve said, air travel is neither the problem nor the solution.
Meaningful action won’t come from the fumbling “government,” and it sure won’t be the hapless news media. But the joke’s on us until then.
Airliners, Ebola, Myths and Facts
The most recent communicable disease being linked with air travel as a possible factor in its spread is Ebola, which joins a long line of other contagions, such as SARS, H1N1, Hepatitis and even the basic flu, in the screaming air travel headlines.
There are two ways in which air travel could actually be a factor in the spread of such infections. First is the simple reality of transporting those infected to an uninfected area, and second is the propagation of infectious elements among people near the disease carrier.
This last consideration is medical and comes with contingencies well beyond my level of expertise. But what is absolutely common knowledge is that countermeasures in any public place–which an airliner is–are rudimentary. Your airline seat–like your theater seat, your seat at a dinner table, a taxi cab, a bus, a classroom, or any public area–is not sanitized before your use, no matter who sat there before you. That’s the public health standard in the modern world.
Yet the media rushes to the airport to show file footage of an airliner, then grab man on the street interviews with deplaned passengers, asking if they’re concerned about being exposed to [fill in contagion du jour] from other passengers who have visited [fill in global contagion hotspot] from possible proximity to an infected person.
It’s a short leap from there to certain urban myths about air travel. First, and most persistent yet absurd, is “passengers are in a sealed tube, breathing the same air.”
The reality of an airliner is yes, the hull is pressurized, but no, it is not sealed. In fact, the fundamental link between pressurization and air conditioning on a passenger airliner at all altitudes is a constant outflow from the jet in flight, into the atmosphere. The controlled outflow is key to moving volumes of air through the cabin in a deliberately designed pattern for many vital functions beyond passenger comfort.
In a Boeing 737-800, that carefully crafted flow pattern drives air from two air conditioning systems through the cabin and cockpit, down through the forward electronic equipment bay below the cockpit where it picks up residual heat from electronic systems to keep that vital equipment at optimum operating temp, then the airflow proceeds back around the cargo compartment, keeping that compartment from getting too cold, then overboard through an automatically modulated outflow valve.
Key to that process is flow. The plane is not sealed, so constant airflow is mandatory–and here’s where another urban myth surfaces: airlines are limiting airflow to save money.
The fact is, airlines are increasing airflow to save money: in our Boeing, we have two large, powerful recirculating fans driving airflow which in basic Venturi logic, draws air from the air conditioning systems and eases the workload ultimately on the engines from which the bleed air is tapped and thereby increasing fuel mileage.
The urban myth about decreased aircraft airflow to save money probably originated in the early seventies when the OPEC oil embargo drastically spiked fuel prices. Airline engine technology was simpler and less efficient before today’s high-bypass fan engines were developed. But even then, less bleed air really never improved airline fuel burn and regardless, an jetliner was never a sealed tube and always required metered outflow balanced with input to maintain pressurization.
“Raising the altitude in the cabin to save money” is the third urban myth with no basis in fact. First, in the Boeing, pilots have control of the rate of change only–the cabin altitude is set at a constant differential between inside and outside the hull based on maintaining the strength of the fuselage. Hollywood may have inspired the myth that pilot can “raise the cabin altitude,” but the only thing we can actually do is climb or descend and when we do, the pressurization systems maintain a constant differential and a constant airflow in order to maintain structural integrity of the fuselage.
So back to my original point: yes, airliners are the hardware of mobility that now mixes populations experiencing regional outbreaks with others a world way, but only in the modern sense of scale: all continents are now linked by air travel in hours rather than days or months of travel. But travel itself is the fundamental reality of the twenty-first century, period.
And that mode of travel, “air travel,” is neither conducive to propagation any more than any other public place, nor is any airline adding any infectious risk to “save money.” The most glaring stupidity in that persistent myth is the vital contingency the the flight crew must blindly increase their own health risks to do anything of the kind.
In the passenger airline flight crew world, we often refer to an airliner as “the flying Petri dish,” because people with every communicable disease board, fly, sneeze, hack and cough just as they do in any public place. But that’s no different than the environment endured by the first grade teacher, the restaurant waiter, or pediatric nurse.
And the airline seats are about as “sanitized” as the movie seat you sat in, the tray table as “clean” as the restaurant tabletop the busboy just wiped with a wet rag dipped in tepid, hours-old water from a well-used bucket.
In other words, as far as infectious disease exposure risk, an airliner is just like any other public area–we just move faster and more frequently from place to place. It’s not a sealed tube, no one is reducing airflow or raising the cabin altitude to save money.
So use common sense about flying, recognize the airliner cabin as a public place and behave accordingly (thanks for mopping the lav floor with your socks, BTW), and breathe easy when you do, knowing the truth about these unfounded flying myths.
More insider info? Step into the cockpit:
These 25 short essays in the best tradition of JetHead put YOU in the cockpit and at the controls of the jet.
Some you’ve read here, many have yet to appear and the last essay, unpublished and several years in the writing, I consider to be my best writing effort yet.
Priced at the printing production cost, this collection is not for profit–it’s for YOU to keep.
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