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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.

sunset 1

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.

adi 2

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.


Posted in Uncategorized on February 12, 2012 by Chris Manno

The JetHead Blog

I can explain the truth about airline ticket prices in just two words:

Jerry Jones.

Stay with me, please. And go one step further, considering also “The Death Star,” as local sports commentators have dubbed Jerry Jones’ new billion-dollar stadium in Arlington.

"Jerry World," Arlington, Texas.

Put these two images together and consider one very important economic indicator: the FCI, or “Fan Cost Index.”  The FCI formula takes a representative look at what a family of four could expect to spend at a football game this year. The FCI comprises the prices of four average-price “general” tickets, two small draft beers, four small soft drinks, four regular-size hot dogs, parking for one car, two game programs and two least-expensive, adult-size adjustable caps.

According to a  recent survey, Jerry Jones and his new stadium have had a major impact on NFL ticket prices. According to a late-2009 “Team Marketing Report:”

“Tickets to National Football…

View original post 871 more words

Flight of Opposites

Posted in Uncategorized on June 16, 2011 by Chris Manno

Flight of Opposites

Chris Manno | June 16, 2011 at 10:11 am | Categories: Uncategorized | URL:

Weightless, a thousand moving metal, plastic and composite parts plus a ton of jet fuel all plunging earthward in perfect formation miles above west Texas. Again.

In that split second of suspense between the vertical and the plunge, in the last breath of a climb atop all the little BBs of thrust; a moment’s daydream and too late; let it fall.

The top of an arc–was this a Cuban Eight or a Clover Leaf I was doing?–and in a heartbeat of wandering thoughts, too late: we ain’t flying any more.

Own it. Afterburner? Salvage the maneuver? Nah–just own it. Fall. Salvage is usually ugly, often bone crushing with pullout G-forces. Relax, ride it. A sky moment, where you let the big blue reveal what happens next.

Been there, done that, without the airplane.

Spinning, inverted–shouldn’t you be looking at the ground? Relax; own it–you’re three thousand feet above the ground, there’s an altimeter on your reserve chute if you want to waste your free fall trying to read it–so just own the moment, be in the sky without questions or answers. You’ll eventually get into a chute-opening posture. Savor the weightlessness illusion of terminal velocity for a second or two more.

Such a relief from the cramped jump plane. Never the first in, which is last out, because kneeling hunched over a reserve chute on the sheet metal floor with straps and crap cutting off blood flow to the extremities any longer than is necessary isn’t optimum. Nor is the last in, at the door, first out: yeah, we’ll drop a test streamer first to see what the wind’s doing, but I’d rather watch the first jumper as a human guinea pig and see what it’s actually doing to the ant hanging from the canopy. Plus I don’t want to be by the door–if you snag a rip cord on something, which isn’t unthinkable in the cramped Cessna, you’re going out the door immediately because an open chute can take the whole plane down.

Out, finally; wind blast, tumble, hold–own it. Be in the sky moment, let it happen, notice it happening. A cushion of air, it feels like, a hundred mile an hour head wind. But not really–it’s you moving against the air, but funny how Copernicus and the whole “Earth revolving around the sun” thing doesn’t seem real as the Earth rushes up to meet you. Same end result though, no matter how you look at it.

And that’s the world of opposites that defines flight.

On the flip side, there’s nothing but concentration, detail, and performance in big jet flight. Every action is undergirded with interlocking layers of care. Details swim before my eyes like the ghostly green numbers projected on the glass in front of my face by the Heads Up Display: speed, altitude, energy, heading, lift, thrust, course, pitch, bank–all in an integrated ballet.

Unspoken but verified is the weight, the center of gravity, the temperature, the wind, the runway length. Everything matters, everything builds upon everything else–you sort it out, see to the details.

How different from falling out the yawning door of a noisy jump plane into the rushing slipstream and the hand of the wind on the downward plunge. Or the top of a delicate arc, inverted, watching the horizon replace the blue, then the dirt below rushing to meet you.

And that’s the opposite of what’s going on in back.

There it seems everyone’s not flying. Rather, it’s all about what they’re not doing: not driving for hours, not yet “there” but tolerably suspended between now and then. It’s all newspapers and iPads and headphones and movies and every animation and distraction except for flying, which back here is more the unraveling of time rather than the revelation of flight.

Which is fine.

For me nonetheless, it’s still the thousand moving parts and burning jet fuel and forward speed till the magic moment when hands and feet connected to tons of aluminum, blood and bone pull back and like a promise kept, the Earth falls away.

Then land or sea, it’s all the same because we’re sailing over it instead of creeping across it. Life shrinks back to arm’s length of miles and miles below and details and blemishes five way to the widest scope and limitless horizon. From where I sit, looking forward, it’s more like floating than moving, but the tapestry below inches by just the same.

And surface challenges vanish with the imperfections below. Towering thunderstorms raking and pummeling the dirt? No problem–seven miles up, we’ll fly over the trouble below.

Trouble out west: a spark flew, a fire caught, half a state on fire below draping the underscape with a finger-like plume.

A thousand acres in flames, but it looks more like a crushed-out cigarette from the sky box. And the ultimate ruggedness of rocky wilderness looks like just so much rough-cut, snow-capped diamond sculpture easing by below.

And of course, we’re not alone. But if we’re both on course, we’re nose to nose, so you won’t see this from the back. But we nod to each other, aware of the closing speed of over 1,000 mph, opposites in course and altitude.

Where you’re headed and where you’re from is all reversed nose to nose. Flying casually, intuitively then and diligently, perfectly now–it’s all about time and life, about how we go more than where and when we get there.

But one thing never changes, then or now, airplane or no: they sky’s a fine place to spend your life.

The Eye And The Sky.

Posted in Uncategorized on June 5, 2011 by Chris Manno

So I’ve got at least two nurses and a hospital orderly pinning me down for a technician holding a gi-normous needle–the likes of which you’d expect a vet to use to put down a quarter horse–so the medical guy can put it straight through my five-year-old eye.

Sure, he says it goes into a vein in my arm and I won’t feel a thing, but I’ve been screaming my head off from the examining room to the lab just in case–because I don’t believe him. And you just know everything’s going to go haywire and oops, sorry about the needle in your eye and it hurts like hell, doesn’t it?

And that’s the look I see in this business-suited guy’s eyes, standing before the gate counter as I drag a ten yard flight plan out of the computer, asking me, “Will the flight be smooth?”

Which is as sensible as me five years before the needle-in-the-eye incident as a newborn asking the O.B. who held me upside down by the ankles, still covered in the packing material, “So, will my life be smooth?”

Now, how to answer that? “Well I’d have to say that around the Ohio Valley/Rust Belt which on the timeline is about your teen years, things could get ugly.” Because we have a coast-to-coast sea of roiling air miles ahead and yes, the teenage years may be bumpy, expect a little declining baldness near the middle-aged Great Plains of your life and God knows you can’t even dream of the desert spread of yawning cracked scorched earth mesas and desolation which lies before the emerald paradise coast, then the endless blue above and below and beyond. You know you really shouldn’t have asked. Newborns can’t, five-year-olds don’t; thirty-somethings shouldn’t but that’s the downside of holding the needle for a living.

Because in the great yawning maw of the sky and life and the dreamy arc of flight–ain’t no smooth rides. But how do you tell someone, convince a person, that the needle isn’t going to stick in his eye? Still, though, life’s going to get downright bumpy enroute but just hang on.

Because I’ve done this flight thing a couple times only poking what I intended; I’ve checked out the weather, the jet, the jet’s performance–relax. And expect a bump or two, but don’t make the fat nurse sit on you.

Twenty-five thousand feet, puffy clouds above and below and the red dirt pancake of West Texas sprawled wide as the eye can see.  Aloft in the “two thousand pound dog whistle” jet trainer, Air Force Flight School, filling my oxygen mask with sweat; my helmet chafing, ejection seat cinching me tight.

“Want to spin to the bottom?”

Means ‘do you want to pull those nose up, chop the power on both jet engines till we stall, then kick the rudder till she falls out of the sky in a flat spin like helicopter rotor blade broken loose and plummeting straight down for five miles?’

Which doesn’t seem like a good idea to do in a jet. But it’s part of the syllabus: you need to learn how to do this, to get out of this before you fat-splat onto Prairie-dise below. Because you’re going to fly solo once you master it–or you’re going to wash out if you can’t.

“Yup,” I lie, “Ready. Let’s do it.”

And all the needles in the world hover over your eye–not your vein–and nurses threaten but you’ve already tightened the web of straps cinching you to the ejection seat like a shrink-wrapped burrito. You didn’t ask the instructor pilot if it was going to be smooth because that’s as big a failure as the newborn seeking assurance for the O.B.. Guts, faith; just live it, dammit.

Because at that point, every bit of life is about flying–whatever the cost. Stick the needle in my eye; rip the wings off, shear the rotor, smack my ass like a newborn; I don’t care: I’d rather be dead than not fly.

Which is in itself a birth into the sky. And from there, the smart fearlessness is the journey of life–don’t ask because you really don’t want to know the answer, really: don’t need answers.

The dreaded spin? I had it all wrong. Slowly at first, then faster, then a blur but the point is this: it felt like I was stable and the jet was firm and stable but the world itself was spinning around me. Not me. Eyes fine. Relief. Confidence. Do it.

Ignore the blur, take the right steps: slam the stick forward; opposite rudder, power on, recover from the dive. And from that moment on, own the sky. No matter what.

Don’t know what Joe Biz did in the back when the rumbling started and the wings shook. I know I was at that time and for the entire transcon flight engaged with the radar and fuel flow and navigation and a thousand performance parameters including not sticking a needle in my own eye: I’m in the pointy end, remember? First on the scene, if you get my drift. I’ll spin us down, me down, every damn time–and recover before we hit the dirt. Trust me. Trust you.

Joe Biz, I feel your pain: as a five year old, I remember when they finally did stick the needle into my arm, it really didn’t hurt. But I had to keep the howling up to save face. A half breath and the dreaded moment’s past–but until it is, the second lingers like your very last heartbeat.

But once you get into the sky, you’re on your way–and everything’s better. It just is.

What’s it gonna be, wing nut?

Posted in Uncategorized on May 19, 2011 by Chris Manno

Step inside my head for a moment.

Both jet engines are cooking slowly, efficiently, and you’re riding a cool blue flame in the thinnest reaches of the atmosphere, surfing the jet stream flinging you across the night sky with an extra hundred knots across the ground.

Love speed, love tailwinds and smooth night skies and clear radars and huge-mongous ground speed and parsimonious fuel flow of high by-pass fanjets breathing easy in the stratosphere. Can’t get enough of that, or keep it long enough.

Which is part of the deal. The weather three hundred miles ahead and eight miles below is crap, and that’s right where you’re headed. Not a surprise, so you started the balance sheet a thousand miles ago, before lighting the fires and launching off: destination forecast = extra fuel and an alternate airfield. But there’s a catch: extra fuel means extra weight. Your late arrival will put you beyond the landing cutoff time for the “long runway,” which itself is only 6,900 feet–short by any jet transport standard.

So you’ll need to plan to stop the jet on the short runway, the only one open. It’s less than a mile long, which ain’t much to stop 70 tons of pig iron literally flying at 234 feet per second on touchdown. Unchecked, that speed would eat up the 5,204 foot slab and put you into the lagoon in 21.367 seconds.

Hobson’s Choice: more fuel makes for more weight makes for a tough stop, but allows more flight time for contingencies. Thinking of the lagoon, stopping wins over loitering.

Bring in just enough fuel to set up a rational, stable approach, missed approach if need be, then rational, stable goat-rope divert to Dulles with the big-ass runways only 20 miles away. No more, no less fuel than that.

More accounting: landing distance chart shows at our weight, we need 5,000 feet of runway in order to stay off of CNN Breaking News. That leaves 200 feet to spare. At our touchdown speed, that’s about 1.5 seconds, but don’t exaggerate: by the time we’ve slowed some, you’ll have at least 3, maybe 5 seconds to contemplate your Facebook profile picture splashed all over the news.

Secret knowledge; runway 33 at Washington Reagan has a special high-friction coating to aid in stopping. Do you care? Hell no. That’s just one of those bad temptations whispering in your ear to “try it, it’ll be fine” when what really catches your attention after 17,000 flight hours is a different voice:

Don’t be an idiot! Trust no one, rely on no forecast or report or tech study; be conservative, be safe, realize there’s something out there you don’t know know that you’ll damn well wish you had later.

That’s my silent partner, that’s air sense, that’s “salt,” as my compadre Randy Sohn, legendary pilot who is one of only a handful of pilots in the nation who holds an open ATP from the FAA: he’s certified to fly any and every aircraft in the world. Hallelujah and amen–I believe!

First Officer has salt too. On descent, he asks, “You don’t mind if I’m on a hair-trigger to say ‘go-around’  if anything doesn’t look good on the approach, do you?”

“Heck no–more than happy to have you do that and if you do, put clearance on request to Dulles right then.”

Strapping in, starting descent, seat the cabin crew because the radar looks problematic and–they’re a Dallas-based crew, they’ll get it–you tell them “hang on, she’s gonna buck.” Which means grab a buttload of jumpseat and stay there.

Excellent First Officer has the data link printout of the DCA weather. Which you don’t trust and besides, it’s twenty minutes old already.

Cheat: I tell the First Officer as we turn downwind at 8,000 feet, “I’ll be off the primary radio for a minute.” On one of the others, I call the tower. “What are your winds currently?” I need to know, because we can tolerate ZERO tailwind on the short runway. I have the direct crosswind heading in mind; anything greater means we go off to Dulles. Of course, tower says direct cross.

Store that away. Trust no one.

Back with the F/O. We pre-briefed both approaches to both runways, in the slight chance we could beg our way onto the long one. If not, we’re also set up for the non-precision which is the only option (how dumb is that for a major airport?) on the short runway. F/O suggests we could burn off some fuel and have an easier stop.

I think about that for a moment. No, that would commit us to that runway without a rational divert option, which I believe we need to hold in reserve as I don’t have a warm fuzzy about the short runway: is it dry? Really dry? If we were to blow a tire and lose 25-30% of our braking effectiveness, could we stop anyway, “super friction” or no?

“Can you guys turn in from there?” asks Approach Control, “Or do you want a turn south to descend?”

Hah. “We want a turn south.” Remember, a stable, rational approach, not a screaming descent to the black hole visual.

Turn back inbound low and slow, just the way we need to be. Intermittent clouds–they’re pushing the visual limits, but it’s marginally acceptable. I see the river.

“Want me to call it?” asks the F/O. That means I’m responsible from that point on to descend and land visually. “Yes, call it.”

We’re cleared visual. I aim for the George Washington Bridge, crossing at the specified altitude, then it’s a free for all: plan a wide swing out then line up on the runway.

Goddam black hole. I’ve got the runway–it’s that big black spot. I don’t like aiming at a “big black spot,” especially a short one.

Speed’s right on, sink rate good. Switch to tower frequency, cleared to land. Tower wind report goes bad; doing the math, angle of deviation and rate: that’s a possible 2 to 5 knot tailwind.

Gray area: might it die down? Might it be different at the approach end? Might I be able to sneak under the normal approach path and claim a few hundred extra feet of runway? Might the friction additive make the difference? Black hole growing closer at 221 feet per second. Can you do it? You know you can, you can fly anything.

The question hangs in the air for a heartbeat: what’s it gonna be, wing nut?

Eff the ifs and mights. My air sense says this is not necessarily wrong–but absolutely not right enough for me to do it.

F/O correctly says, “That’s a no go.”

“Tell him we want clearance to Dulles.” Done.

Huge hassle to reconfigure, new altitude, new clearance, coordinate divert, avoid the Washington restricted airspace; reprogram the flight management system, brief the Dulles approach after securing the weather and a clearance and Job One: stay in control.

Twenty two minutes later, we’re on the ground safely at Dulles.

About 20 or thirty of the 160 warm pink bodies deplaning in one piece glare at me, mad about being 20 miles west of the lagoon I wouldn’t risk plunging into. The next day, after landing at Washington Reagan, an airport supervisor is in the cockpit before the engines have stopped spinning to read me the riot act: the divert cost $50,000; 45 kids misconnected to Honolulu; and then the prize, “did you think about asking to land south?”

Right, night VFR, a constant stream of jets inbound, just enough fuel for an approach and a divert if needed and we’ll ask to land against traffic.

The easy part of the job is the flying, Randy would always say. It’s the thinking you’d better get right. We did, enough said.

Nice job keeping everyone dry and the $50 million dollar jet out of the lagoon . . . good headwork on the critical decisions . . . nicely done divert. That’s what I hear in my head; it’s what I’d already told my First Officer.

Because no matter what an angry supervisor or glaring passengers might be “thinking”–I’d do it again, will do it again, exactly the same way: smart, conservative, safe. Yeah, that’s how it’s gonna be–every last time.

Waiting to pull out of the alley in LAX.

San Clemente Island off the southern Cal coast.

Pebble Beach

Edwards Air Force Base and the Space Shuttle runway.

Night Flight: Turning the Darkness Upside Down.

Posted in Uncategorized on May 14, 2011 by Chris Manno

There’s a breathless moment of lightness exactly when the ground falls away, a heartbeat between earth and the sky when you belong to neither yet both at once till that held breath resolves itself into flight.

Free, climbing, darkness: night flight is always magic. Fledgling days, the “Night Tube,” a fifty mile circle around the red dirt pancake that is West Texas at ten thousand feet, solo in a sleek jet. Afloat, footless, nimble–forbidden to fly inverted solo at night, strictly PROHIBITED; a slow roll nonetheless, upside down, no earth, no sky, no gravity, but a kaleidoscope of pinpoint colors above and below. Laugh. Do it again, linger inverted, own the Sin of Intent: if you’ve already done it you’re going to hell anyway, so what’s a couple more slow aileron pirouettes in the face of eternity? Besides, whatever mischief gravity attempts, afterburner will fix.

Blackness deep as all time above and below. Constellated stars corralled ahead like a nose print on glass and you’re reading your own EKG: airspeed, angle of attack, altitude, vertical velocity, heading, flight path vector, energy on the wing; an alphabet soup swimming in ghostly green, the hieroglyphics of gravity banished by entree to the night sky. Lazy me, so lazy it takes an effort to glance at the engine instruments–can’t they be incorporated into the ghostly Heads Up Display, the oracle of flight projected before me?

The glance confirms what I already know from the feel of the throttles and the sound of the engines, through my feet on the rudders and my hands on the yoke: no sour notes in that symphony, although it never hurts to confirm with the symbology stacked neatly on the CRTs. Nothing needs to be said, what matters more is what’s done–a constant angle climb, course intercept, play that magenta line off into the blackness below the blackness.

That’s the ocean below the night sky, invisible black but cold and deep nonetheless. We arc above the sea floor, riding the air piled atop the silent cold depth of black water. Savor the island effect, because that what we are, in the sky, above the earth regardless of water or land. We generate our own heat and light so the 165 peeps in back don’t notice the difference between sky and water and land and night–but I do.

And here’s the beauty of overwater flight: not so many lights below–the occasional lonely ship or spindly oil rig–but a scattering of jewels above. Roll again, a Night Tube of time and light and dark and space, ocean and ground and sky–not supposed to, not allowed to invert the “now” with “then,” but what the hell. Embrace the Sin of Intent–once you start, why not see it through? You’re going to pay for it eventually anyway, so make it worthwhile. And there are constellations in everyone’s own night sky, aren’t there?

Because the night sky is a shaggy black dog, shaking off and flinging droplets of lights across the dome as far as you can see. Who’s to say where they land and like tea leaves, what they show? Mark Orion, constant friend, akimbo over your shoulder, partner in a thousand air miles and those at sea too. Who decided that a thousand years ago, a chant repeated over a millenium to never forget, to make sense of the dark like that? What lines your night sky with light, and you know it does, if you look?

I don’t care if it’s been a thousand years–somebody sees Cassiopeia in the sky vault of jewels, remembered for all time.  What did she do that we should mark her now? And who else?

In the cold black below, in the inverted time and place, there’s Stormin’ Norman: bold, boxy guy, a fighter, a drinker, flying buddy, drinking buddy with a laugh big as the sky; flew into the Philippine Sea that night and broke into a thousand little pieces that fluttered to the sea floor, never to be seen again.

Except in this night, in the thinnest air suspended between then and now, above and below, the deep and aloft. Roll again, what the hell.

Yes, Fone-Tone, brother in  The Years of Fire and Tribulation, stony-tall as Gibralter, deep as the Mariannas, fighter jock to the bone; four-ship low-level, NORDO, rejoin, ground scar in the Arizona desert, forever a ground scar; some scars you don’t want to heal or forget because once the map’s lost, where’s the treasure?

And Lloyd? How could you? How could it be you, a hundred cat-shots, and this? There’s a place, a reason, find it or not but it’s etched in the sky like the fire of a galaxy a light year ago, but still glimmering.

More. There are more, will be more. So much to see, but you don’t want to see too much–the galaxy finds a spot for every spark eventually. Canvas unframed, you can see without looking, and the end is always the same. You know, in your own life, your own sky, damn well what I’m talking about.

Like the Dipper to your back, the ghostly characters before you reveal that. South, lower, slower. Right side up and back inside, to the “now” demanding the reconciliation of your 600 miles per hour across the ground and your miles high above it.

Like an endless sigh, to the earth again, to the light. Huge wheels, concrete, everything slows–for now. Which really isn’t so long, is it?

Heading west at 40,000 feet, looking south: cold air to the right, warm to the left; a line of boomers in between.


NW A-320, a thousand feet above.

Boomer sunset.

Airline Semantics

Posted in Uncategorized on May 9, 2011 by Chris Manno

You’ve heard this over the P.A. on board a jet before, and it’s the airline version of  Tom Sawyer coaxing Huck Finn to whitewash the picket fence: “This is for your comfort and safety–and the safety of those around you.”

Translated? Eat your vegetables. Only like Mom used to do, coax you into thinking you thought of it yourself so you’ll actually do what’s best for you. So when you hear that phrase after any instruction on-board, like “fasten your seatbelt” or “stow your electronic devices,” do it.

Because what will follow is the airline version of Mom’s standard, “This is going to hurt me more than it’s going to hurt you.” Which is as untrue as when she said it: you’re going to get arrested, which will actually hurt you more than anyone else. Because you’re talking federal charges, which is neither negligible or inexpensive.

I know, by the time you’ve navigated the security and check-in gauntlets with their byzantine requirements and instructions and finally settled into your seat on board, you’re ready to have your own way at last, right?

Sorry, but you still have to work within constraints and if necessary, read between the lines so we can all stay cordial.

And there are other clearly embedded messages waiting for you at the airport, although I can’t really figure out why they’re dressed up as anything other than plain English. Some of them, I still don’t get–like this:

“The equipment for this flight is out of service.”

Huh? What’s wrong with “aircraft” and “broken,” respectively? Is it like the hotel industry’s 13th floor taboo–no one wants to stay there because of bad luck–that spills over into flying: sure don’t want to say the “a” word (“aircraft” or “airplane”) because flying is scary?

Does anyone ask what “equipment” you drive? And to me, driving is MUCH scarier than flying. But no one asked me about either one, actually.

My favorite "equipment."

Still, it seems like a bit of airline puffery to say “equipment ” to passengers when what you really mean is simply, “aircraft.” Between pilots, sure, we use the term “equipment” to distinguish between aircraft types, as in “is this scheduled for a 767-200 or -300?” Or, “What equipment is Joe Bunda on?” “He moved to the 75.”

Bad enough that we schedule “equipment” rather than aircraft, but the euphemisms don’t end there. Apparently “equipment” doesn’t “fly,” it operates. As in “Flight 22 will now operate out of gate 15.” Can we not even just “depart” rather than “operate,” if “flying” is too scary?

Now hold on before you sling around the jargon you just learned. Even knowing the correct term, don’t ask the dumb question:

See what I mean? It’s a linguistic mine field there at the airport and if you don’t want to seem like a dolt, it’s best to say as little as possible. But here are a couple other subtle distinctions if you want to sound at least like you go to the airport more than twice a year.

First, we “load” bags but we “board” passengers. Right? I mean everyone complains about air travel being a cattle car experience, so why not clean up the perception a little: you will board the aircraft. At your destination, you will “deplane,” not “de-board” as I often hear after a pregnant pause grasping for words.

Do you really need to be "loaded" onto the plane?

Finally, one last bit of terminology. If we meet and I’m out of uniform, I will likely not even mention what I do for a living. That’s not because I’m anti-social, it’s more because I don’t really want to hear a story about how someone’s last flight allegedly “fell thousands of feet straight down” or more typically, had the pilot “abort the landing” and shoot straight up or blah-blah-blah and no, I don’t know what the fare to Cleveland is.

So at best you’ll get a cover story. But if in uniform I accidentally make eye contact and you feel an interrogation is in order, let me say up front that I don’t do any “runs.” Those are for skiers and milkmen. Besides the fact that I usually can’t even remember where I was the night before (some hotel somewhere?) or haven’t even looked at the trip I’m flying next week (think about that the night before), pilots and flight attendants don’t do “runs.” Okay?

Hmmmm, I sound a little cranky today. Must be because in an hour, seems I’ll be dragging on the polyester and operating the equipment between Dulles and LAX once they load the passengers.

But in real life, I get to fly a great jet across the country yet again, seeing the best views from the sky and loving every minute of it as I always have, while keeping my 160 peeps and crew of six safe and happy and taking them where they wanted to go today.

Now, which sounds like more fun to you?

Welcome to my world.

I used to post these on Facebook–but I closed my account last week. From now on, they’ll be right here if you care to look at them.

LAX at sunset, waiting for the alley to clear so we can park.

The Colorado River divides California from Arizona.

Beak to beak at LAX.

The city by the bay.

Weekdays flying the Boeing, weekends flying the Stratocaster Blacktop with my band, "NightFlight."

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