Archive for a day in the life of an airline pilot

Air Travel, De-Icing and Delays: The Real Deal.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline delays, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airline safety, airliner, airliner take off with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 1, 2015 by Chris Manno

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Network news media love a screaming headline, even if they have to fudge the facts to suit the rhetoric. But here is the reality behind the wailing and gnashing of teeth regarding recent ice-related delays at major airports: the airlines did a damn good job given the challenges heaped on them in this storm.

As a captain, I flew a 737 trip in the middle of the week in the slush and snow out of DFW. Here is your chance to bypass the media frenzy (NBC News carefully crafted “9 hour delay for passengers”–quietly admitting later that it wasn’t on-board) and watch the flight evolve despite the weather interference.

At 06:10, a phone call from crew schedule woke me up. I had volunteered to fly a trip that day and they offered one, a turn to John Wayne Orange County (SNA) scheduled to depart at 10:10. I agreed to fly the trip.

Normally, it takes me 35 minutes to drive to DFW. I left my house at 6:45 to allow extra time for the slush and snow snarling the highways.

I arrived at DFW an hour later, an hour and twenty minutes early. The jet was parked at the gate, had been all night in the freezing precip, so I went aboard and started powering up systems. A quick check of the wings and fuselage confirmed what I assumed driving in: we’ll need a good de-icing on the wings, control surfaces and fuselage.

Let’s get more specific about aircraft icing. First, we need to remove the accumulated ice. Second, we need to prevent more ice from re-forming on aircraft surfaces. De-icing can be accomplished by a number of different fluids under pressure. “Anti-icing” is provided by a different, specifically designed fluid that chemically inhibits the adherence of ice on aircraft surfaces.

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In our case, the ceiling was low and visibility limited by ice fog, confirming the critical temperature-dew point spread that leads to condensation which of course would freeze on any cold surface. That means both de-ice and anti-ice will be required.

Anti-ice fluid effectiveness varies with temperature, and rate and type of precipitation. The duration of anti-ice protection declines as various forms of moisture increase. So, gauging the time–called “holdover time”–is a call that must be made by the flight crew based on observation of conditions actually occurring.

You can tell when anti-ice fluid has been applied to a jet because it will be colored either brick red-ish or lime green. The intensity of the color cues the cockpit crew as to the fluids declining effectiveness–it fades as the fluid loses the ability to inhibit icing. We actually check visually that from inside the aircraft prior to takeoff.

A side note about the fluid color. Most airlines now use the green fluid because the red was difficult to distinguish from hydraulic fluid as it dripped from crevices and bays on the aircraft, sometimes several flights downline from the original de-icing treatment. I learned long ago how to differentiate the two: propylene glycol, the main ingredient in anti-icing fluid, smells and tastes sweet. Skydrol hydraulic fluid is bitter. Yes, I’ve tasted both in the thirty years (and counting) I’ve been flying jets and laugh if you want, but it saves all aboard a needless and probably lengthy maintenance delay.

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Another unseen complication that adds to the icing mix is jet fuel. The worst case is with fuel remaining in wing tanks after a flight at high altitude. The fuel in the tanks become super cold due to the temperature at altitude (often -50C or less) and as a result, the wing surfaces both upper and lower are super-chilled, causing any moisture in the air to freeze on contact. Explain that to the guy sitting next to you griping as we de-ice on a sunny, clear day: humidity plus ice-cold metal surfaces can add up to wing icing that must be removed: we can tolerate no more than 1/8″ of mere frost on the underside of the wing only. Any other airfoil contamination must be removed before flight.

Clear ice on wings is not easy to see from the cabin, particularly the area near the wing root, which is critical on aircraft with tail mounted engines like the MD-80 and -717, because upon wing flex as rotation and liftoff occur, any wing root ice that breaks loose into the slipstream could easily fly back along the fuselage to be ingested by either or both engines, with potentially disastrous results.

So why don’t aircraft have heated wing surfaces? Actually, most MD-80 upper wing surfaces do have an electrically heated thermal blanket on top of the inboard-most portion of the wing surface. But, not the curved wing root joint which is not visible from the cabin. So, you’ll notice a lot of MD-80 aircraft having to de-ice in even the slightest icing conditions.

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In our case, I knew the fuel pumped aboard for our flight would have the opposite effect. At DFW, the fuel is stored underground and pumped aboard from a hydrant, not a truck. The effect would be to warm, not freeze the wing surfaces. That would help with de-icing, but we’d still require a thorough dose of Type-2 de-icing fluid to clean ice off the jet.

By 9:10, the official crew check-in time, there was no sign of a first officer. I started the process of printing a flight release and agreeing on a fuel burn, as well as the complex process of determining takeoff speeds, made more complicated due to the presence of slush and snow on the runway. Any type of contamination, from pooled water to slush to ice can impede both acceleration and deceleration. Both maximums (takeoff and stopping) must be accurately calculated and while there is a published “runway condition,” the actual calculations are very much a realtime, eyeballs-verified assessment: I’ve broken through an undercast during an ice storm as we approached DFW only to find that just the first two-thirds of the runway had been cleared–a fact not noted on the official field report. That lopped off about four thousand feet of useable braking surface.

At 9:30, forty minutes prior to pushback, still no sign of a first officer. The roads are awful, as is the traffic, so I’m not surprised and I’m glad I left home as early as I did. I called Crew Tracking, catching them by surprise as well: in this winter storm, there were plenty of stuck, stranded or missing crewmembers. They hadn’t noticed.

I resigned myself to going out into the sleet to do the exterior inspection myself, planning to have all preflight duties complete in case the first officer should show up at the last minute. Here’s an up close look at the leading edge icing:

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and the ice on the wing trailing edge:

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Engine covers were installed, a very smart preventative measure to prevent icing, but which would require maintenance removal and documentation. I radioed maintenance to get in the cue for this required maintenance and fortunately, American Airlines had well-staffed maintenance for this shift. But again, they too had technicians who, like my F/O, were stuck in the ice storm snarled traffic, slowing things down.

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With the exterior preflight complete, I requested the upload of navigation and performance data as well as our clearances. And I took a minute to call the Crew Scheduling Manager on Duty to suggest that they grab the deadheading 737 first officer sitting in row 20 and reassign him to fly the trip. He said if the duty legality limits worked, that’s what he’d do.

By 10:00, the conscripted first officer was in the right seat, having agreed to the reassignment: he’d fly the leg to the west coast, his home base, and rather than going home, he’d also fly the leg back to DFW and only then deadhead home, if possible. Just one more crewmember going the extra mile to make the flight operation work.

We pushed back nearly on time (10:21 vs. 10:10) , but the ramp was congested with ice and slush, slowing everyone down even further. The precip had stopped, the ceiling had lifted to a thousand feet and the temperature-dew point spread had widened, all of which meant less chance of ice formation. Our holdover time would expand, allowing us to de-ice on the ramp rather than at the end of the runway. Essentially, that made for a shorter wait for all aircraft: if there is freezing precip, or any precip in freezing temps, all de-icing would have to be done at the end of the runway, meaning long takeoff delays.

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Taxiing a seventy-five ton tricycle on ice and slush is tricky, requiring slower speeds and a critical energy management: too slow and you’ll have to add excessive power to restart movement, slinging ice and slush at other aircraft. But you also need almost zero forward inertia to maintain nose gear traction in any turn, aided by asymmetric braking on the main gear into the turn. It’s a dicey operation that takes extra time.

We kept the flaps retracted on taxi-out so as to not accumulate any slush or freezing water on the underside of the flaps, a potential problem during flap retraction. Our miles-long taxi from the east side terminal to the west side runway gave us plenty of time to assess the surface conditions and fine-tune our power and speed plans.

We finally lifted off nearly fifty minutes after taxi-out. Through route shortcuts and favorable winds, we made up some of the lost time, arriving twenty-eight minutes behind schedule.

I believe my flight was more typical of all flights during an unrelenting ice storm, but mine isn’t the one craftily worded into a horror story by the media. Regardless, the fact is that icing makes flight operations complex, difficult and challenging. Yet more flight operated in the same way mine did–slow, careful, successful–than the media version of a few unfortunate cases. I take it as a compliment that the reality of these winter flights was a success story leaving the media very few flights to turn into their typically overblown horror stories.

By the time I got home nearly fourteen hours after voluntarily accepting the challenging flight assignment, the network news was already sensationalizing the “impossible” travel situation created by SnoMIGOD 2015 which dumped an unprecedented amount of snow and ice on DFW and Dallas Love Field. At least I knew the facts were not as they’d have us believe–and now you do too.

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Air Travel Mythology: The “Aborted Landing”

Posted in air travel, airline cartoon, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot blog, airline safety, airliner, fear of flying, flight crew, jet flight with tags , , , , , , on February 17, 2015 by Chris Manno

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Air a Travel Mythology: The “Aborted Landing”

In social settings, I never bring up the fact that I’ve been an airline pilot at a major carrier since 1985. Because when I do, the mythology springs forth: tales of “harrowing” flights, near disasters, plus lost luggage (not my department anyway).

The flight myth most typical is, in passenger-speak, something like this: “We were about two feet off the ground when the pilot ‘gunned it’ and we shot straight up.” Gunned it?

Ah yes: the go-around, as we call it. We don’t call it “aborted landing” and in fact, until we get on the runway it’s not a landing anyway. Even after touchdown, the only option other than stopping is a “rejected landing,” which is a methodical procedure to get back into the air safely.

The main point is this: all of these options are planned for, procedurally set out and practiced, and in a nutshell–not a big deal.

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Here are the facts, step by step, of a missed approach.

First, the urban legend needs revision. From an airline pilot standpoint–and this is the airline philosophy, in writing–a missed approach is considered a successful approach. In other words, landing is not mandatory for a successful approach. In fact, unless all of the many restrictions upon which a landing is predicated are met, a missed approach is the desired outcome.

There are a number of reasons why a missed approach may be required and the most common reason is not the one most people think of: weather. Rather, is the more mundane issue of spacing.

More specifically, that “spacing” refers to the distance between aircraft landing and ironically, this is typically a good weather problem. In bad weather, aircraft are well-spaced by radar and further, speed is typically assigned by the air traffic controllers. On a clear day, aircraft are allowed to “see and avoid” and thus are not spaced as far apart, nor is the speed as rigidly assigned.

So, now and then one aircraft on final approach may not have enough space behind another aircraft just touching down, which could mean the first aircraft might not be off the runway before the following aircraft would touch down. That’s a no-fault situation: maybe the first aircraft needed to slow down earlier than normal, or, as at DFW today, due to construction some runway exits may be closed, requiring a longer landing rollout.

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Or, often enough, an aircraft is cleared for takeoff as you approach and they might take longer than expected to roll. That’s routine and actually, it’s their runway once they’re cleared for takeoff. So, we may need to go-around.

The pilots in the second aircraft can see the spacing problem develop and there may be a few things that can help: you could slow to your final approach speed–but I also consider the plane behind ours and how that affects his spacing on our aircraft.

My rule of thumb is usually this: if the aircraft ahead touches down or starts takeoff roll and we’re still at 500 feet or higher, it’ll probably work out. Less? We’ll likely go-around. When we do, the process will be routine and simply, methodically by the book: smoothly add power, arrest the descent, bring up the landing flaps and their drag, retract the gear and smoothly climb to the assigned missed approach altitude and following the prescribed course.

No big deal from the cockpit, but it takes you by surprise in the cabin where you can’t see the situation developing. When power is added and the nose pitches up, the sensation in back is much more dramatic, particularly behind the wings and especially near the tail (ask any flight attendant) where the swing is more pronounced.

Sometimes the power can be overly dramatic: we have a power setting designed for a go-around, but it’s predicated on a last second escape from the lowest descent altitude on the approach–50 feet above the runway, in the Boeing 737-800 I fly. But seldom is the missed approach executed at that rock-bottom minimum, so that much power isn’t really necessary.

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Trouble is, some of the older jets like the MD-80 have autothrottles that know only to set the maximum setting if the go-around power toggle is activated. That causes a dramatic pitch up that may feel, in the words of the immortal Dr. Dole at USC Flight Safety and Accident Investigation Center, that you’re “climbing like a stripedy-ass ape.” Startling to say the least and why many pilots of those older aircraft disengage the autothrottles and manually set power on a go-around from a higher altitude.

Newer jets like the Boeing I fly today have two go-around power settings available with the autothrottles engaged, one with the maximum power response, one with a reduced, more comfortable setting.

A go-around from an approach minimum altitude is the exact same procedure, only with the full power setting, which will make the maneuver more pronounced but nonetheless, routine. That’s necessary for safety: we want maximum terrain clearance with no delay, so the exact same procedure is followed, just more aggressively due to the full computed thrust used.

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When I see the need for a go-around developing, the first thing I do is talk to the other pilot, getting us both ready to execute the litany of steps if need be. If we’re down to the approach minimums, there’s really nothing to discuss: we execute the standard go-around maneuver.

Traffic problems and spacing are the usual reasons for a go-around, but there may be the occasional go-around due to weather minimums. There’s no “gunning it” or fire-walling the throttles like in the Hollywood depictions, just a methodical and prompt setting of the required engine thrust and an arrested descent, then climb.

In either case, don’t expect to hear much from me on the PA, because in a go-around both pilots need to focus on flying: the altitude, the procedural track, the aircraft configuration and speed. If we’re going around due to weather minimums, we’ll also likely be setting up the navigation and securing the clearances to divert; if not, we need to get re-sequenced back into the landing pattern. None of that on a two man crew works well solo, which is what a PA would require.

So I’ll get to it when and if I can. If not, explain all this to the guy next to you, and relax. Because now you know a go-around is just routine.

More questions about air travel and your flight? Here are the answers:

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Flying an Airliner After an Engine Failure on Takeoff

Posted in air travel, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airline safety, airliner, airliner take off, airlines, fear of flying, flight crew, flight training, GE 235, jet flight, passenger, TransAsia crash with tags , , , , , , , , on February 7, 2015 by Chris Manno

Flying an Airliner After an Engine Failure on Takeoff

I get asked this question a lot as an airline captain: can an airliner survive an engine failure on takeoff? The answer is, yes and no.
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Here’s the “yes” part of that: every multi-engine airliner in service today is designed and certified to continue a takeoff after an engine failure and fly on one engine, provided that the performance limitations are not exceeded and the correct single engine procedures are followed exactly.

Which brings us to the “no” part: if performance and control limitations are exceeded, or incorrect remedial procedures applied, chances of a successful single-engine takeoff and climb are slim at best.

Here’s a close look at the variables. First, the performance limits. Can an airliner execute a normal passenger flight with just one engine? From brake release? Of course not. What it can do is continue a takeoff if an engine fails with one inflexible limit: you must have achieved the correct minimum speed prior to the engine failure in order to successfully continue the take-off with only the remaining engine(s).

That speed is called Critical Engine Failure Speed (CEFS). To be exact, CEFS is the minimum speed you must have attained with all engines in order to successfully accelerate to takeoff speed after an engine failure, and then within the runway remaining, lift off and and cross the departure end of the runway at an height of at least 35 feet.

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Stopping with a failed engine is a whole different discussion, to be addressed in a future blog. For now, consider the engine failure and the takeoff being continued. If we have met or exceeded the CEFS, we will continue the takeoff which is critical to down-line obstacle clearance.

The go-no go speed is called “V-1,” which is simply “Velocity 1,” the decision speed on takeoff roll: if you’ve attained V-1, you’re able to fly. If you’re at V-1, unless you’ve started braking, you’re committed to flight because you may not be able to stop within the remaining runway.

For me, life becomes easier at V-1: we can, and will, fly. That’s what the jet (and I) was intended to do–the thought of bringing tons of hurtling metal and fuel to a stop in the remaining runway is not appealing to me. In fact, I need less aircraft systems to fly than I do to stop, including no blown tires, operative anti-skid and spoilers. In that split second abort decision, how can I be sure I haven’t lost an electrical system that would inactivate the anti-skid, or a hydraulic system that could affect the spoilers, or a blown tire that would take out 25% of my braking–and maybe cause a wheel well fire?

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The answer is, I can’t be sure, but I can fly with every one of those components inoperative, and to a pilot, flying a sick jet is preferable to wrestling a sick multi-ton high speed tricycle to a stop. So we fly, if we can do that safely.

My discussion from here pertains to the Boeing 737-890 aircraft I fly, but I would add that all airliners are certified to this same performance standard. Procedures vary, but the single engine performance standards are similar.

So in the event of an engine failure beyond CEFS, at rotate speed we will rotate normally and begin our obstacle clearance climb. This is where crew action is critical.

The first indication of an engine failure in the cockpit will typically be a yawing motion due to the imbalance of thrust between engines. Whether that occurs on the runway or, more likely, in the air, the response is the same: add as much rudder as is required to slew the nose back to normal flight. That’s critical for two reasons. First, the runway clear zone (the area over which you must fly) extends forward from the runway centerline. If you curve laterally away from the centerline, you lose the obstacle clearance protection of the runway clear zone.

Second, the correct amount of rudder eliminates the need for aileron use, which comes at a price: if enough aileron is input, wing spoilers will deploy, inducing drag. This is crucial because drag limits the climb capability which is a defined gradient required to attain obstacle clearance altitude.

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So here’s the “yes” part again: if the aircraft weight is within prescribed limits, if the correct speed is maintained and the specified climb gradient is flown, and the lateral ground track of protected airspace is tracked, then yes, the takeoff and climb-out is certified to be successful.

Do we, in the event of an engine failure, add power on the remaining engine? Generally, no. Why not? First, because the calculated takeoff power setting is designed to be sufficient to allow a single engine takeoff and climb after an engine failure. Yes, more thrust is available and if you need it, you use it. Our CFM-56 engines are electronically controlled to protect against over-boost damage, but here’s a pilot thought: if the climb is proceeding correctly, why introduce more adverse yaw, and why strain the remaining engine?

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Now, crew response. The person noticing the engine failure is normally (but not always) the pilot flying who feels and counters the yaw. That person, or often both pilots, call out what they see: “Engine failure, number __,” or “engine fire, number ____.”

Then, this and only this: maintain climb speed (and thereby climb gradient) and ground track. Let’s backtrack a bit. Before each takeoff, on taxi out I verbally review three altitudes with my First Officer: the field elevation, the engine out altitude, and the minimum safe altitude for that airport. And that’s our focus in the event of an engine failure: climb at the correct speed on the clear zone path to the single engine climb altitude.

A wise old CRM (Cockpit Resource Management) instructor used to tell all the pilots at my airline as we cycled through for our annual recurrent flight training and evaluations the same very shrewd piece of advice for this and any other flying emergency. He was a crusty, retired Air Force fighter jock who’d hammer this home: “Whatever happens, before you react, you take a deep breath and say to yourself, can you believe this sonofabitch is still flying?

Even after that, we don’t react–we respond appropriately. That is, between the two of us, we agree on what we have, and that can only be three things: engine failure, engine fire/catastrophic damage, and engine overheat. Identifying the problem and the engine is important, because the corrective procedures differ.

So in the minute or so that it takes to climb to our pre-briefed engine out altitude, we’re both analyzing exactly what happened, and which checklist we will bring out to accomplish step be step.

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What if the First Officer, rather than me, is flying when the failure occurs? From my point of view, and I’m coming up on 24 years as captain, I say so much the better: all of our F/Os know exactly what to do and moreover, they’re flying, they have the feel of the jet and the corrections in–why throw a control change into the mix and try to handle it cold?

As an added bonus, as the pilot monitoring the pilot flying, I’m downloaded of the physical stick and rudder challenges which are significant single engine. I can concentrate on analysis, procedures, radio calls and clearances because “Bubba,” as they referred to F/Os in flight engineer school, knows what he’s doing.

So here we go: what do we have? Simple flameout? Do we have RPM? If it’s not turning, there’s damage. Temperature range? Fire? Oil pressure? Only when we both concur will I, being the pilot not hands-on flying, pull out the checklist and read it step by step as I accomplish each with the F/Os concurrence at each step.

Here’s where discipline and crew coordination is key: NOBODY is going to start flipping switches on their own and whatever is done will be done only as I read the procedure. The best way to mangle any emergency is for anyone to go solo and start operating off script.

In every engine failure scenario, there comes a point in the corrective procedure where a throttle must be closed and a fuel lever shut off, possibly a fire switch pulled. The throttle of course reduces the thrust, the fuel lever cuts off the fuel supply to the engine (it’s going to flame out) and the fire switch shuts off fuel at the tank and the wing spar (in case the engine fuel shutoff valve is damaged by fire or explosion) as well as hydraulic fluid, pneumatic bleed and electrical power.

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These actions are drastic and with only one engine operating, they must never be done independently, unilaterally or without a double-check and concurrence. They are also most advisedly done only after level at the single engine altitude with obstacle clearance assured.

Here’s how that plays out in the cockpit, verbally and physically:

Me, reading the critical steps: Fuel Lever, affected engine (confirm)

[pause] I touch the correct fuel lever, F/O concurs; F/O guards the good engine fuel lever with his hand.

Me: Cutoff. [I perform the action] It is cutoff.

Then we go to the next step in the checklist, me reading, pausing for concurrence and confirmation. Bubba is focused on aircraft control, altitude and airspeed, validating each checklist step I read before and as it’s taken. I’m focused on the procedures, plus backing up Bubba’s flying.

If I were flying when the failure occurred, same process, just reversed roles. Each and every step in each appropriate checklist will be accomplished with crew coordination till we are ready to return and land safely.

The easiest engine failure to handle is a simple failure or “flameout.” You may try a restart under some circumstances, or you might not take the time and instead, just get the jet ready to land. The most difficult failure is the fire and severe damage situation, but it’s handled the same regardless: carefully, step by step with collaboration and concurrence.

Never singlehandedly or without concurrence. Because the deadly reality of two engine aircraft is this: if you apply any of the required procedures to the wrong engine, the only engine sustaining your flight, the results will be disastrous.

I’ve had to fly four actual single engine landings in MD-80 jets for various reasons, none so far in the rugged, reliable 737. We practice engine fires and failures every nine months in our recurrent simulator training, handling multiple scenarios each four hour session. The key to a successful single engine incident is procedural integrity, crew integration and communication, controlled pacing, and standard operating procedures followed to the letter.

In the end, a successful engine failure landing comes down to coordination, discipline, adherence to standard procedures and as my old fighter pilot buddy used to say, taking that second or two to collect your wits and say, “Can you believe this sonofabitch is still flying?”

For those who don’t adhere to all of the above, it won’t be flying for long.

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:

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

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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:

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

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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:

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

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And they may be talking to you even indirectly:

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So pay attention:

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

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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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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

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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?

 

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“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.

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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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Your Pilot Isn’t Thinking About Your Connection–and That’s Good.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline cartoon, airline delays, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 7, 2014 by Chris Manno

 

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There’s a blessed silence in the cockpit right before pushback, immediately after the number one flight attendant reports “cabin ready,” and slams the cockpit door securely shut. Before that, the usual boarding chaos filters through the open cockpit door, the clatter of catering the forward galley, ramp workers stepping in to deliver some cargo paperwork, maybe some aircraft maintenance techs wrapping up required service or repairs.

But the noise and activity isn’t all that ends with the door slam. We call it “sterile cockpit,” an industry-wide concept rooted in the best Crew Resource Management (CRM) practices that dictates all non-flight essential conversation ceases in order to focus solely on the prescribed, often complex procedures required to fly the jet.

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In other words, leave all distractions behind and keep your head in the game. And I take that concept a step further–I clear my mind of everything except procedures (there are a multitude) and situational awareness: he’s moving, we’ll wait … wingtip clearance here … wind shift, at least for now … we’re heavier than planned.

Not just sterile cockpit verbally, but mentally as well. When you’re moving eighty tons of metal and a hundred sixty warm bodies, there’s no room for distraction. My airline (like most, I assume) has done a good job of minimizing outside considerations through the basic premises from which the pilot-in-command operates.

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For me that means I’ve “pre-worried” about the extraneous considerations–both yours and mine–and for the good of all, I’ve put them aside, compartmentalized them, and now look beyond them. When I say yours, I mean your down line connection, your time schedule, your reason for flying whether business or pleasure. Mine often overlap yours–my days off, my family plans, my important events, even my own physical stress of time zone shifts, late hours that could creep later, and my pay considerations.

Doesn’t mean these concerns are invalid, unimportant or dismissed–they’re just not on my mind as I balance crucial flight variables as they unfold. They’re fully addressed in the basic premises of our airline operation, stipulated in a hierarchy a passenger might not like, but which makes the most sense for a safe flight operation:

First, safety, second, passenger comfort and third, schedule. Yes, your connection, even your arrival time, is in third place. Just remember, I have similar personal concerns and I’m putting them completely aside as well. Here’s why.

A recent Flight Safety Institute report highlighted one of the factors that contributes to the comparatively high accident rate per flight hour experienced by air ambulance operators. One factor mentioned was the very real life or death pressure perceived by the pilots: if we don’t land on this spot, at this time, regardless of circumstances, a life may be lost.

That’s a very vivid and understandable urgency that would be difficult to put out of a pilot’s awareness. Nonetheless, the air ambulance operators with the lowest accident rates are the ones who’ve put CRM at the forefront, refocusing on flight safety limitations as a governing principle and setting aside all else.

 

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Now, your kid’s birthday, your business or other event, yes, they’re important–so are mine. But they aren’t life or death, are they? But as flight distractions, whether it’s an air ambulance or an air carrier, they could easily become exactly that.

From the moment we push back, the clock in my captain’s mind runs on weight, not minutes: how many pounds of fuel do I have, which translates into the ability to remain aloft. So, when you (or maybe a commuting crewmember, to be fair, asks “can we fly faster to make up time,” the real question in my mind is “can we afford to gamble by shortening our available fuel duration, and to what purpose and at what cost?” Less holding time available at our destination, maybe requiring a more stressful approach? No way.

scat vomitThe answer to “purpose” would be to shave off 5 to 10 minutes–hardly worth it–at the price of degrading our ability to arrival delays because of an increased fuel burn for speed. The question “can we top this weather rather than circumnavigating the area to save time” brings the opposite answer: maybe, but the more prudent option is to avoid–so we’ll spend the extra time (sorry about your connection–and mine) to do that.

And if you think we as pilots don’t have crucial connections, think again: besides losing pay in a misconnect, there’s more. For many crewmembers, even a ten minute late arrival can mean the difference between getting home or spending a night in a hotel at their own expense and losing a day with family. Sure, I eliminate that worry by not commuting, but crew base positions are determined by seniority–junior pilots and flight attendants can report to work and receive the official notice, “as of next month, you are based a thousand miles from home.”

That all needs to wait outside the cockpit door. Inside, we must focus on the vital flight considerations that trump all distractions.

Again, arrival time–and connections–hang in the balance, but that’s a distant third place behind safety. So yes, I’m not thinking about your connection–and you should be glad. Because that’s exactly what you’ve paid me for, and you deserve no less than the safest, most professional flight, no matter how long that takes.

 Fly the jet firsthand: 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.

amazon order button

Brick by brick to the sky.

Posted in air travel, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, flight, jet flight with tags , , , , , , on October 22, 2014 by Chris Manno

 

He’d started out as a brick hod carrier, Frag had, working his way up from the grunt labor of the laden, creaking wooden hod to the old-world artisan status of a bricklayer and along the way, reducing himself in name only to the fractional monosyllable “Frag” as he did. That seemed enough for him, or so he’d said. Because what he did was larger and more weighty than anything he was ever called.

You, college boy,” he fairly barked in a gravelly smoker’s bass that typically ended in a hawk and a spit. “You ain’t nothing now ‘cept dog-hauling a hod for journeyman Frag.” He liked to refer to himself in the third person, and me as College Boy, reluctant hourly summer help, just some kind of cardboard thin cutout of a not-Frag, not perilously balancing a hod on the fourth floor, open girder structure as he had in an old-world, long lost tradesman reality.

And he was right–about that but even more: soaring buildings took shape on blue-lined white paper derived from computer-assisted draftsmen in thin ties and nine-to-five safety free of an unbalanced hod laden with the real heft of mortar and sand, the reality of what they designed, brought to life by the wiry tough, nut-hard muscle of Frag. And to a lesser degree, gofer College Boy me. Bound to the ground, all of them, till Frag gave them flight, story by grunting story.

The sweat equity, dirty fingernails payout of the endless hods Frags and lesser College Boys wrestled–you didn’t “carry” a hod, you balanced it–commanded the dreamscape of architecture and sweatless design to life on a gruntscape of muscle and brick placed just so, line to certain line, mortar scrape by deft, artistic bricklay and tap, brick by a thousand bricks, up into the sky.

I can never forget the achy weariness of burning college boy sinew, sun-baked of dry labor days and even after work, crazy beer-fueled joyrides balancing atop, for no sensible reason, Frag’s battleship-sized beater Pontiac as he’d fishtail and rage through a dirt-clodded, unpaved construction site. Why? Because Frag was bigger than all that, larger than anything they could design and he could build, that he orchestrated brick by brick with his callused hands and college boy’s dog-like, tongue-hanging dragging labor. Real work is only what you do with your hands, where your bring paper and promise to life. To flight.

Power control is key to airspeed.

Not so labor-coarse are the hands today resting atop the thrust levers harnessing a straining draft horse team bucking fifty-thousand pounds of jet thrust. Stand hard on the brakes and haw the team to roaring life, needing to know, to feel it, read it, personally. Sure, there are a thousand lines of computer code flowing through electric sinews monitoring the ungodly torrent of fire and fuel, metal and power slung under wide swept sleek wings howling against the brakes but no matter: journeyman Frag knows it ain’t right till it feels right, looks true as a plumb line to a tradesman’s eye for “right,” for launching more than a towering design, yet no more than that in the play out of someone else’s grand plan in the sky.

To my right College Boy, jet edition, eyes me warily as I hold it all in my tight-handed, set jaw grasp, squint-eyeing what we’ve built to be sure, to know it’s true. Hah. Stand on the roof, college boy, and hang on. We’re going to fly, make it soar, like never before or again.

Live it, fly it with me: 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.

amazon order button

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