Archive for the pilot Category

Help for Fearful Flyers

Posted in air travel, airline cartoon, airline delays, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airline ticket prices, airlines, airport, airport security, fear of flying, flight crew, jet, mile high club, passenger, pilot, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 31, 2015 by Chris Manno

Cover Airline Book 1Here’s a chapter from my brand new book, “Air Travel and The Death of Civility: A Field Manual & Survival Guide,”  crammed full of shortcuts, insider info and little-known techniques to make your air travel as stress-free and smooth as possible.

Available now from Just click on the title link above, or search on Amazon.

Help for Fearful Flyers

Please don’t feel alone because you’re not: many passengers have some level of nervousness about flying. It’s just another version of the anxiety many feel at the dentist, the emergency room; virtually anywhere new, unfamiliar, and potentially uncomfortable. In fact, people and businesses actually cultivate and market exactly this type of anxiety at theme parks with roller coasters, haunted houses, and terrifying thrill rides. Some people actually crave the feeling.

What a nervous flyer feels is perfectly normal and need not eliminate the option of flying. That fact alone is reassuring, especially in the case of groups or couples who limit their travel options due to the reluctance of one individual to fly. Often, a large part of a passenger’s unease is an understandable fear of the unknown, which is essentially just unfamiliarity with a strange new environment. So let’s fill in some of those blanks in your flying knowledge and then, we’ll discuss techniques to manage your unease.

Land in crud

First, let’s consider the aircraft and its durable, ingenious engineering. The designers of our jet have refined their process of building and manufacturing our airliner through decades of progressively better models with ever-improving materials and techniques.

The aircraft was built to rigorous standards of strength and durability far beyond what we will ever encounter in flight. To be specific, the FAA certification standard required the aircraft to demonstrate that it could withstand forces in turbulence well beyond that which has ever been recorded, plus an additional margin, with complete airframe integrity. That means that regardless of turbulence, there will be no airframe damage or structural deformity, we’ll be still flying just fine. Basically, this aircraft is not coming apart in any conditions we encounter in flight. You don’t worry about your car running over a bump at high speed, over railroad tracks, or even a curb–but it’s not built to anywhere near the strength standard of our jet.

bumpy twitter

You’ll actually notice less turbulence in flight these days, due to a couple of assets we use. First, radar technology has advanced not only in display resolution, but also in a predictive capability: now, our digital radar and on-board computers are sifting through thousands of bits of digital data gathered by radar and other systems, giving us an accurate prediction of where turbulence may occur. Our radar is integrated with the Global Positioning Satellite system and knows where it is at all times, allowing it to separate terrain features like mountains from weather echoes. The radar aims itself correctly and has an accurate, interactive display of over 300 miles ahead of the aircraft. The radar has a “pop-up” feature that allows it to show on our displays even if it’s not selected, when it finds a weather problem many miles away that we need to know about.

Add to that the ground-based computer analyses that are charting patterns of turbulence, which are then automatically up-linked to us in flight, plus the exchange of real-time information between pilots and air traffic controllers and the end result is less turbulence encounters, and lighter turbulence when encountered. There are days when rides just aren’t completely smooth and we’ll encounter some bumps. But rest assured, we’re working our way through the sky in the smoothest flight path possible.

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Visualize the air we fly in for the fluid that it is, with currents, eddies, flows, and even the wakes of other aircraft also aloft. Crossing a jet’s wake is much like crossing that of a boat: rumbles, some bumping, then we’re past the wake. Atmospheric eddies and currents can cause similar short periods of bumpiness, or even just a mostly choppy sea of blue. If that persists, we’ll search for a smoother altitude–just give us a few minutes to coordinate a clearance from air traffic control.

Mountains cause the atmospheric equivalent of river rapids in the airflow, even at altitude, because orographic features like ranges and peaks act like rocks in a stream, causing a rougher ride. That’s typical of a flight path across the Rockies: some bumpiness is not unusual. But you can rest assured that at our flight speed, we’ll pass through the area without delay.

In US airspace, airlines and Air Traffic Control pool weather information to share among all flights, and one designated FAA facility manages traffic and routes around areas of severe weather. With all of these assets working for us every flight, we don’t get taken by surprise by weather.

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That type of coordination that shares weather and route information is emblematic of the entire US aviation system, which has had a seventy-year learning curve of development, testing, and refining that has resulted in a strong, reliable oversight and infrastructure for commercial aviation, including

the Federal Aviation Administration, Department of Transportation, and the National Transportation Safety Board. All three in combination provide experienced and comprehensive oversight that makes flying the safest mode of transportation you could choose.

Another highly-developed airline support system monitors our jet in flight. Our technical operations center monitors hundreds of bits of data sent in a non-stop, automated stream from our jet in flight. In flight, I’ve had a message from our round-the-clock tech center print out that said, “Can you verify the vibration on the left engine? It’s reading a little high down here.” The engines alone transmit a huge stream of telemetry to our tech center, and that data allows long-range trend diagnosis that has all but eliminated in-flight engine failure on the Boeing jets I fly. Trend data and years of diagnostic experience have allowed Boeing, our

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tech staff, and our maintenance center to keep aircraft systems in peak operating forms.

From years of firsthand experience, I can say Boeing jets in particular are finely engineered, rugged and reliable American-made jets, and that’s the main reason I fly them. Thousands of hours in Boeing cockpits have given me every confidence in the strength, power, and versatility of these jets which are capable of handling anything we could encounter in flight.

I’m fairly typical of the pilots you’ll find in command of your flight, in my thirtieth year with my airline, my twenty-fourth as captain. I was an Air Force pilot before that, and like my colleagues on the flight deck, I have the singular goal of flying safely, procedurally perfectly, and always conservatively. I have three back up plans for every eventuality and firmly believe there is nothing I could face in flight that is beyond my capability. That’s not only due to experience, but mostly because of years of relentless, ongoing advanced training not only in full-motion simulators, but through hours of classroom instruction, systems training, and recurrent exams. I have every confidence in the copilots I fly with who share the exact same goals, procedures, and training. In the cockpit, we’re unanimous about one thing: the safe, efficient, and smooth operation of our flight.

Pasta entree

So, knowing all this, what else can you do to ease the stress of a flight? First, keep the above facts in mind, reviewing as needed leading up to your flight and even on board. Second, keep track of the elapsed time. Your airline app will tell you how much flight time to expect, as will the captain in his PA and also, the flight attendants will normally tell you the planned flight time in their PA. Whatever the total flight time is, divide it in half. Now, keep track of the first half, which will elapse much faster for you than the total time. Just that half, count it down. Upon reaching halftime, relax and rejoice: from there you will count down an ever-shrinking time period much shorter (and growing ever shorter) than you have already endured quite successfully.

Concentrate on your breathing, keeping it steady and calm. Reading matter, a video, music: dive in, focus on that. Claim a little “me” time and catch up on reading or viewing that you never seem to have time for otherwise.

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Keep an eye on your halftime benchmark, noting your steady progress. Bear in mind the fluid aspect of air and anticipate some waves in this most vast sea we’re sailing through. Be confident that your extensive flight team, including the crew on board as well as our airline technical, operational, and dispatch staff constantly monitoring and interacting with us in flight, plus the air traffic control network of pros handling our route passage. We’ve all been doing this for a long time and as our record shows, we’re darn good at it.

I’ve used the countdown technique at the dentist office (my “nervous flyer” experience) as well as when running several 26.2 marathons. It works!

There may never be a time when a nervous flyer actually enjoys a flight, but there’s no reason a flight can’t be tolerated with minimal stress with a little forethought and perhaps, an equal amount of distraction with entertainment or conversation. Here’s a summary for you to review as needed:


• Unfamiliarity is often at the core of preflight anxiety. Review the contents of this book and this section, and give yourself credit for your successful progress through the various steps required for a plane flight.

• Your aircraft is a tough, versatile, well-designed engineering marvel that has been refined over years of improvements.

• Constant monitoring of the aircraft’s vital systems in flight allows reliability and safety that makes air travel the safest travel option.

• Weather systems are a reality of life, but we have advanced technology on-board as well as on the ground keeping us well ahead of weather challenges and well clear of danger.

• The atmosphere is a fluid and behaves much like a large body of water, with the same, normal characteristics such as currents, flow, eddies, wakes, and the occasional bump.

• Your pilots are highly experienced and dedicated solely to the safe, professional operation of your flight.

• Use the countdown system of flight time to your advantage, watching your time aloft grow ever shorter.

Cover Airline Book 1Other chapters include buying a ticket, getting the best deal and the right seat, check-in and security shortcuts, on-board perspective, aircrew insider perspective, damage control and much, much more. Read this book, then travel like a pro!

The perfect gift for someone about to travel, for those reluctant to fly–and for those eager to fly and wanting to have a stress-free, excellent air travel experience.

Order your copy from

Just click this link.

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Air Asia Crash Raises Questions For Pilots.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

adi 1

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, captain–DECIDE.

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

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


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.


Air Travel Illustrated: The Holiday Flights.

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

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

First, my best advice either way:

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

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Flights are packed, so plan your inflight strategy:

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


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


Prepare mentally for the challenges of airport security:

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Please board only when your sedative is called:

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Ignore the pompous guys impressing each other in First Class:

class warfare

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



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

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


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

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And they may be talking to you even indirectly:


So pay attention:

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


Realize that weather can complicate our flight:

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So be prepared.

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Anticipate the post-holiday letdown:

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Enjoy your leftovers properly:

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

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More cartoons? Get the book:

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Flight Crew: Some Things You Just Don’t Get Over.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline industry, airline pilot, flight attendant, flight crew, pilot with tags , , , , , , , on November 14, 2014 by Chris Manno


Sidelong cross-cockpit glance: yep, it’s a flat top, ex-USMC style, and the bushy but gone gray Magnum PI mustache suggests a time warp. Better times? Easier times? He laughs a lot for a guy on the razor’s edge of disaster. I say nothing.

Ahead cumulus knots itself into towering stacks, each with a cirrus blow-off pointing like a banner to where the fleet’s headed. Same place we are, or so the anvils point. I’m thinking an upwind end run around the billowing, full-sail armada. He’s talking about our Chicago layover tonight.

His wife, a flight attendant, met us at our connecting gate as she passed through the airport. Something in her eyes matched the foreboding that weighed heavy as the tide on my mind. Pleading? Hurt? Wary? I couldn’t tell–yet I know what I know: My Darling Bride, also a flight attendant, flew with her yesterday. And I knew his wife–flew with her many times–before they were married. Then she was bright in the sense of Christmas lights, tiny scattered points of happiness gleaming everywhere. Not any more.

“Takes two to tango,” his words tumble in a snippet from what is more of a forced chatter, or so it seems. I guess if you’re talking you never have to listen. But in the tango of time and fuel, in the dance altitude and storm clearance, may I cut in?



“I’d say left,” my mouth says. It’s his flight leg, but my jet. He’s flying the plane, but I signed for the damages. Upwind is longer, but smoother, safer. The shorter way is too uncertain, could put someone through the ceiling.

“We can top it,” he suggests, sweeping a hand out flat, as if showing a planar space between our altitude and the boiling cumulus rising ahead. Ah, there’s a thought. Climb another two thousand feet to max habitable altitude for the weight–which puts you into the coffin corner where the difference between high-speed buffet and low speed stall is a handful of capricious knots. If there’s any turbulence, those knots stop the tango and freestyle. Good luck.

His wife had mechanically recited to mine the all-too-familiar litany. “We just bought our ‘captain’s house’ … he wants me to quit flying … he can hold captain in Chicago … get a crash pad there …” In the jumpseat confessional, all is forgiven, but there will be penance nonetheless. Ahead, lightning licked the bruised-blue cloud bases, promising a fresh evening hell for Kansas and eventually, Illinois.

“Let’s take it over the top, direct,” he says with finality. “Stay on time.” Unsaid, but mentioned earlier: “she gets in an hour ahead of us.” Gentleman that he is, he doesn’t want her waiting. She flies for a different airline, but even after working her way over to our terminal, she’ll still have time to kill.

The thing about fiery cumulus and boiling sky is this: you really don’t know how it’s going to turn out. Never mind about the paper algorithm of options and assets, timing, clearance and margins, in real life, you just never know.

I key the hand mike. “Center, we need twenty left for weather.”

He slumped a little. Peeved? The perfect plan set back a few minutes? Can’t tell. Doesn’t matter. We swung wide upwind.


I glance at the cloud tops, anvils aglow with the molten sunset. Some storms seem to fade, to lose their fire when the heat of the sun goes away. But this towering mess seemed the type that would thunder ahead regardless.

“Some things,” I say, “Some things you just can’t get over.”

Deaf ears. He was already hundreds of miles ahead, prattling on about Geno’s and where they’d watch the mind-numbing circularity of NASCAR (“She gets it–and me!”) inside The Loop.

Shouldn’t be in too much of a hurry, too far down the road, I thought to myself. Some things you just never get over, and really, you probably shouldn’t try.

 More? Read on. cvr w white borderThese 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.

Own a piece of JetHead, from Amazon Books and also on Kindle.

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Hard Blue Redemption

Posted in air travel, airline pilot blog, airliner, airlines, flight crew, pilot with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 26, 2014 by Chris Manno


Slap that alarm in the dark; AGAIN … now it’s on the floor. Damn. Fight your way out of the amnesia of sleep, gradually rejoining the world: damn again–realize you’re not home, this isn’t your bed, your stuff and consequently, not your day. That’s the Original Sin of air travel: you sold the day, wet-leased it, and your flying skills to the airline whose uniform is strewn in a trail leads from the door of the hotel room, across the floor and to the bed you’re finally rising from, stiff, un-caffeinated and rumpled, inside and out. You bought the ticket–you take the ride.

Darkness in a time zone east of your own is a double-whammy: it’s early, earlier still from the time change, and it’s only a charcoal gray dawn as night relents but grudgingly. And listen: rain, but not only rain, wind-whipped and cold-slung pellet rain, one of the reasons you don’t live in this “there,” one of the many “theres” far from the “here” of home, but also with too many good reasons why it isn’t home: like early season pelting freezin’ rain. Be glad you’re not waking up as First Officer, who’ll have to do the exterior preflight.

Light? There … on; sit. Good dog. And there’s another flash in the back of your mind, a cobalt pilot light ever glowing, growing: sky. Flight. The reason of the day, for the day sold to the owners of the jets you get to fly. The sky, blue as the speck in your mind, the gas blue sheen but a down payment, earnest money, underwriting the rest of the day in the blue.

Around “there” (check the nightstand before acknowledging where exactly “there” is–the phone book has more than once corrected a faulty assumption: “Oops, Cleveland, not Columbus”) the gears of life will turn differently for a hundred and fifty other early rising souls who’ll converge with you on the boxy stacked concrete airport. For them, “here,” your “there,” is home. They’re leaving home, you’re just leaving “there.” You wish the best for them and their “there,” wherever that may be.

Wrestle with aerodynamics from your first waking moment: the Venturi effect of the shower sucks the Saran Wrap-thin hotel shower curtain inward to mat against the body you’re trying to wake with trial-by-needles of always “too” hotel bath water: too hot, too cold (no in between), just be done with it.

Double-bag the in-room coffee maker: regular plus decaf equals stout yet blah but passable brew. Reassemble the uniform, throw everything back into the bag with five minutes to spare before show time. That’s both literal and figurative: the show time for the crew, the “AIV” (Ass In Van) time to leave the hotel, plus showtime for the non-crew. They will either to ignore you (my fervent hope) or engage you, which will go all kinds of wrong unless you hide behind a phalanx of flight attendants who are professional at “friendly, especially before an entire day of thoughtless and often rude passenger behavior.

out of nice

Through the airport, selective eye contact. You don’t need to hear anyone’s tale of terror and the plane allegedly falling thousands of feet and blah blah, whatever. And you definitely don’t want to hear any guy’s (why is it always men?) explanation about why they’re not a pilot, because there are too many damn good reasons why you shouldn’t be a pilot but you refused to give in. And there were too many in the Air Force pilot chase–including you, at times–who were scared shitless in some of the flying but didn’t quit, and even some who died in the trying and flying anyway. So let’s avoid that eye roll.

Silver tail: there she is. Heart skips like a first date: she’s beautiful, here for you, yours all day. Let’s get to work.

Morning light struggles with tumbly dark clouds tacking the sky like schooners on a gale. Sheets of rain rake the Tarmac and the big tail bucks the gusts, rocking the jet. A cup of coffee, a bar of something with a side order of precision: weights, power settings, instrument departure route, climb and cruise. Certify that it’s correct–get your phone out and call for more fuel: DO IT. You never regret that later.

The slow trundle aboard the ark continues under the background music of the tower frequency and an electric monotone issuing clearances; wait for your own. Verify each point. Scan the sky, eyeball to eyeball, what’s it really doing? You have the weather report, but you don’t fly on paper. Who’s winning the fight for the sky?

Cracks of indigo and slats of sunshine joust in the heaving sky as morning clears its throat making way for noon. It’s the early blue that’s best, a dark, hard blue promising so much more than an evening sky that’s mostly a grudging, sighing concession to an overpowering night. Savor the taxi out, careful, slow, watching the sky fight itself, clearing, tearing up the rumpled angry cloud banks and flinging them east like a dissipating surf boiling away against a rocky shore.

At the right moment (at last!) it’s time to climb; pour on the coals, ride the thunder, ascend, climb. Through the clouds then above, let them all fall away with the earth, somebody else’s squabble now. Salvation in flight, above the dirt and rocks and concrete and asphalt and hotel shower curtains, time away, not here but there but now away; suspended between here and there by the salvation of flight.

There’s the hard blue redemption of a sky that deepens the higher you fly, going to black straight above. Quiet crystalline cold, smooth; the big jet cruises with ease. High enough for now, Icarus, perched in the blue, halfway to there. Savor the flight while it lasts.


Now you can own a piece of JetHead:

cvr w white border

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.

Own a piece of JetHead, from Amazon Books and also on Kindle.

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The Big Girl and What You Don’t Know

Posted in air travel, airline, airline pilot blog, airliner, airlines, pilot with tags , , , , , , , , on September 19, 2014 by Chris Manno

She stands tall in the chocks, that DC-10, all shiny polished aluminum gleaming at the leading edges like an Atlas rocket. A grand old bird, a design maybe Mac-Doug rushed into production to compete with what some called the better tri-jet from Lockheed. Not that I gave a damn, first as flight engineer, or Tengineer, as we were called, then as DC-10 copilot.

Because she had what a pilot needed–lots of lift on a fat gull-wing that produced a nice ground effect cushion to make you look good on landing if you treated her right, and tons of smash in those growly hi-bypass fans slung under the wing and mounted in the towering tail. For all her bulk and heft, she’d go like a halfback after the snap.

And in the cockpit, windows so wide next to the pilots’ seats that you’d swear you were going to fall out and drop two stories to the Tarmac on your first pushback. That took some getting used to.

That morning I was flying with Big John, a guy as nervous as you might expect a senior captain to be just months from retirement, not wanting to screw up. He had an enormous belly, hence the nickname, which I’d slap with the control yoke when I pulled it back during the taxi-out flight control check.

You’re supposed to watch the small, square flight control position indicator in the center of the instrument near the Thrust Rating Computer as you put the ailerons and elevator through their paces. But it was more fun, out of the corner of my eye, to watch Big John’s rubbery lips twist into a frown by the second or third time I’d heave back on the yoke till it popped him on the gut.

“Watcha tryin’ to do, boy–loop it?” he’d ask with a wet, wheezy sigh. The flight engineer and I would share a laugh about that over beers later. Conspiratorial, we were, young pilots laughing at the fat old captain.

The big jet rolled like a tank on the ground but once in the air, she climbed steady and strong, shoved smartly by those three big, snarling engines. Once she leveled off and planed out like a speedboat does, her nose dropped and she was a thoroughbred on a quarter mile track, effortlessly sailing along at .84 Mach, mane flying, not even breaking a sweat. And there was the quiet beauty of a morning flight, with everything below bathed in a rising arc light of sunshine as if revealing the new day by degrees of latitude and the majestic solar march along the ecliptic.

In cruise there was nothing to do but put your feet up on the traction-taped bar below the sparsely stocked instrument panel–it was so wide it just seemed empty–and ease that electric seat back a comfortable inch or two more. Then the good flight engineer would produce a small bottle of unreasonably Scoville-blazing hot sauce and make us Virgin Mary’s with the tomato juice in the collection of drinks and snacks and a pot of hot coffee and water the flight attendants had tossed into the cockpit on climbout to keep us pacified.

The Ten design engineers took cabin pressurization a step further than most jets, not only modulating outflow to maintain a habitable pressure despite the membrane-thin atmosphere where we cruised–but also varying the input tapped off of the big engines humming out on the fat wings. So she puffed and wheezed like Big John struggling his girth into the crew van, as the three air cycle machines opened and closed high stage bleeds.


You might not notice so much in the cabin, but having spent a thousand hours myself manning the DC-10 flight engineer’s panel, even up front I was in tune with her calliope-ish huffing, familiar as a the breathing of spouse of so many years in the middle of the night.
“Not really happy ’bout these winds,” Big John said, shaking his head. “Big damn crosswind.” Which really mattered at LaGarbage, with its fairly short runways.

But the engineer and I couldn’t care; Virgin Mary’s and tonight in Manhattan mattered more: with half the flight attendant crew–the others would find something better to do–we’d walk from the Mildew Plaza to the Westside Temple for crappy Chinese but free wine. All you could drink, though the wine tasted like piss. But it was free and we were airline pilots: free piss is free piss. Big John could pour down a bucket by himself.

“Seems marginal,” Big John muttered, holding the current wind printout. That was the good engineer’s cue to check it out on his tabletop wind chart. We all knew the limits.

“It’s right at it,” the engineer offered. At it ain’t over it, we both decided, but of course Big John had signed for the jet, the damages, plus the FAA and NTSB beating should so much as a ding appear on the silver girl’s skin.

The engineer shrugged a second officer shrug: I told the captain the winds. I did too: I agreed. Glad it’s not my decision.
“Tough call,” Big John said, searching my eyes, I figured, for some hint as to what I’d do if I were him.

And that’s the moment blazed into my mind to this day as I carry his weight. Not his gut, but his pilot-in-command weight, in the twenty-some years I’ve been wearing four stripes. Ain’t no simple, pat answers, just air sense, and the ability to bring others into the decision in a meaningful way.

“We’ll fly the approach as long as we have the fuel increment to divert to JFK on the missed approach with at least fifteen thousand pounds on the deck there. In a standard Korry arrival that leaves about fifteen extra minutes after the full approach so we bingo out at twenty-five regardless. Just request clearance on the missed.”

Then, the golden question. He turned to both of us. “Now, what am I not thinking?”

Not, what do you think of my plan, which is a useless question if you want to know what others think (Your plan? Okay, but I have other ideas) or what you might not know. What am I not thinking?

dc-10 a crop

“That sounds like a good plan,” I said. It was–and there wasn’t anything in my head that I could share or hold back, especially since he asked. Simple? Might seem so–everywhere but the left seat where the buck stops, where the authority and responsibility irrevocably resides. Big John didn’t need an answer from me–he’d been a captain since I was in grade school. What he needed was what every captain needs: information, ideas, data, and a linked-in crew trained to speak up and comfortable doing so.

Because it’s not what you know–Big John knew plenty–it’s what you don’t know that’ll bust your ass. It’s crucial to ask and by doing so, demonstrate that asking, that searching for what we don’t know to perfect what we do is the way we’re going to think and fly this jet. And speak up about it, dammit, because we’re a team.

We stepped her down through the complex arrival that is the New York Center latticework of airways and approach corridors. I aimed at the two big Maspeth tanks, we were cleared the Expressway visual that’s a box pattern of low-altitude, tight maneuvering (can’t interfere with the JFK pattern) close in and eventually, treetop level. Big John called the left turns for me like a third base coach, having the better view of the SS LaGarbage over his shoulder.

She rolled out squared up, power on against the barn doors of max landing flaps hanging off the trailing edges of the wings. Just a touch of right rudder and she lined up true against the crosswind which less than the limit, or so it felt. The Ten was a stable giant, unlike the squirrely MD-80 I’d also flown as copilot, requiring constant tugging at the leash to get her to heel. When the big gear trucks rolled onto the runway, the ponderous weight settling, it was like she wanted to stop, a great feeling the DC-10 conveyed through your feet on the brakes and the mass weighing her down.

That flight is etched in my memory not only for what Captain Big John showed me, but because of the discovery waiting for me among the half dozen useless messages in my crew inbox after the trip. Sandwiched in the middle was a notice of pending crew status: my captain upgrade class, scheduled for the next month. Just like that, my eyes became Big John’s, needing to know, wanting to make the best decision and from that day forward, accountable.


No more riding along, offering, but now the “tough decision” no longer belonged to someone else.

“You’re not yourself tonight,” my engineer friend said later at Smitty’s, the last resort Irish bar only a few body-slams across Eight Avenue from the front doors of the Mildew. We’d watched Big John polish off a trough of Kung Pao Chicken at the Westside Temple, washed down with a tankard of free piss. After a Westside night, the last snort at Smitty’s helped wash the bad taste out of your mouth.

“Yeah,” I said after a moment. “Probably never will be again.” At least I hoped not. I wanted to be worthy of that fourth stripe.
He looked at me like he didn’t get it, but that’s okay. He would, eventually, when his day came. Until then, in his shoes, it’d be just one more thing he didn’t know.

Now you can own a piece of JetHead:

cvr w white border

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.

Own a piece of JetHead, from Amazon Books and also on Kindle.

amazon order button


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