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The No-Drama Airline Cockpit

Posted in air travel, air traveler, airline, airline cartoon, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airliner, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 13, 2016 by Chris Manno

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The No-Drama Airline Cockpit

Set aside the Hollywood depictions of airline pilots in the cockpit struggling with emergencies, as well as the over-hyped tales from the passenger cabin of chaos and panic that hijack social media after any inflight incident.

Here’s what goes on with my heart rate and blood pressure in the cockpit when malfunctions threaten my flight: nada.

I tried to muster some adrenaline the last time — not that long ago, actually — that a jet engine quit on climb-out from an airport.

Nada. Business as usual: there’s a procedure for that. Have landed many jets, many times, minus an engine, even on fire.

Take it a step further: even if the other engine quits, there’s a procedure for that, I’ve practiced it and have 150% confidence that I’ll land the jet safely even with no engines. Again, no heart rate challenge, just a list of things to be done correctly, smoothly, and in no hurry — rushing increases the possibility of an error.

And I have 150% confidence in my copilot colleagues (I’ve been a captain for 25 of my 31 years at a major airline) who are just as thoroughly trained, tested and prepared as I am no matter what happens in flight.

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So I really don’t give a damn what befalls us — we’ll be just fine.

Whenever trouble starts, I think back on the advice of an old fighter pilot who wisely told me, “You just take a minute to breathe deep and say, ‘Can you believe this sonofabitch is still flying?’” before you take any action.

This advice goes way back with me. Before I was an airline pilot, I had my share of near disasters as an Air Force pilot: fire, explosion, typhoons, lightning strikes — the list goes on.

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Before that, in college, I couldn’t afford flying lessons, but skydiving was a fraction of the cost after I bought my own parachute, slightly used, but still. That got me into the sky pretty cheap and pretty often.

Perhaps that was the key inoculation for for me. I’d ration out my jump budget on weekends: one jump in the morning, one in the afternoon, each day.

One Sunday morning, tumbling through about 1,500 feet, I yanked the ripcord and out came a tangled mess — a streamer, as it’s called.

I did what I could, snapping the risers like the reins to a horse, trying to shake open the snarl. No dice.

Looking down, plunging at terminal velocity, say, 100 mph, I began to be able to distinguish individual cows in the pasture below where I’d impact in seconds if I didn’t get my reserve chute opened.

Even in that wild plummet, I knew that there was a very good chance that my reserve would simply tangle with the streamer above, and that would be the end of my life.

And there it was: I could panic and die — or hold my shit together and maybe live.

I distinctly recall the paradoxical thought in that moment that I’d rather die than panic, and that set me free.

I carefully, deliberately pulled the reserve ripcord but held the bundle closed, then with both hands — still dropping like a rock — I gathered the silk and threw it downward as hard as I could, as I’d been taught, to give it the best chance to blossom and knock the streamer aside rather than twist up with it.

I walked away with just bruises from a hard landing. And I crawled back into that jump plane and tumbled out again and again.

It’s been that way ever since: whatever disaster unfolds, I have no time for useless reactions, only disciplined responses, reasoning, and smart action.

And I’m just an average airline pilot, a carbon copy of most others. Which is why the average airline cockpit, come what may, will have none of the urban legend-drama, just calm, quiet, deliberate action.

That’s the way I like it in flight: quiet, disciplined, low bullshit and high performance. Leave the drama to others outside the cockpit, on the ground, in Hollywood or romance novels.

Fires, failures, windshear, weather — whatever, if you’re in the back of the jet, now you know up front the crew is taking a deep breath and saying, “Can you believe this sonofabitch is still flying?”

Try it yourself — it works. Dull as it sounds, it’s really the wisest choice.  ✈️ Chris Manno

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JetHead, The Novel.

Posted in air travel, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on April 15, 2016 by Chris Manno

Yes, you read that correctly. Let me explain.

I have a novel in print right now: East Jesus, published by White Bird Publications of Austin, Texas.  Of course, there’s an aviation theme (read more here) but only as a part of the larger story.

Here below, for my 5,000+ blog friends and subscribers, is Chapter 1 of the JetHead novel.

You want to live the airline pilot life through the prose you’ve come to enjoy in the blogspace here–happy to report that over a million readers have–before my publisher gets ahold of it?

Here you go.

Chapter 1: A Slice of the Sky

“Breathe, goddamit,” he silently swore, as much to himself as to Beaver. It was no use, Beaver was a narrator, the worst kind of narrator to have in the cockpit, his cockpit. “Just breathe.”

Taxi out should be silent save what was required, at least in his mind, and he was the captain. Like a walk down the church aisle to a pew, quietly, with reverence, preparing for worship. So little needed to be said. But Beaver not only over said what needed to be said, he blabbered on about what didn’t need to be said: “The runway is not wet,” he chattered. No shit, it’s not wet or in flames or made of corn flakes or a million other salient but useless observations that could be made.

Beaver was a last minute replacement for his regular First Officer–FO, in the parlance of flight crews–which could mean only one dastardly thing: Opie was off getting his pipe scraped by The Sky Goddess. Beaver, Eager Beaver, was a newhire, on the line barely a year and eager (hence the nickname) to prove he was doing stuff, a lot of stuff, in that right seat just as he presumed every copilot must do.

Taylor had been in the left seat, a captain for what, twenty-five years plus change now? Had he been Beaver once, with a babbling lack of shut up, back in the day? Doubtful: Taylor had earned a reputation as a silent type, a grouch especially on early flights, in his Air Force squadron. That was long ago, but still.

He sighed and nudged the lumbering jet back toward the taxiway centerline with a light touch on the rudder pedals–his cabin crew, he knew, was up and about checking seat backs and seat belts in preparation for take off. He always pictured Her, his flight attendant bride of twenty years, even though she wasn’t on board, trying to walk down that aisle and taxied as smoothly as possible. Like a great timber ship of old, Taylor could sense the creak of spars and the slosh of fifteen tons of jet fuel in the wings and center tank heaving against the turn he smoothly eased out of. That feel, beautiful silent sense of fuel and steel, blood and bone ready to leap off the earth–that called for silent appreciation. For Opie, maybe. He was good at reading people, knew when to be quiet. But The Beav, no.

Taylor tuned out, steering with his feet, clearing his mind. He knew the planned aircraft weight, needed now only to know the up-linked final weight and what the aircraft’s onboard Flight Management System thought the jet weighed. Because the choreography had to match the dance: day or night, tired or not, those three would be reconciled without ambiguity or confusion without fail.

“Blah blah as briefed blah blah,” came from Beaver in a stream of consciousness flow.

If it’s “as briefed,” why do you need to say anything? Selective listening would be the key to not having an aneurism during the next 3,000 air miles. Opie, damned Opie, blowing up his life with the Sky Goddess and sticking Taylor with The Beav as a result. Hope it was worth it. He eased the jet to a stop in the aluminum conga line ahead. The fuel sloshed, the keel wagged a bit in protest. The ship was alive and that, for Taylor, was what mattered and really, all he wanted to think or feel.

The Boeing was a simple, solid jet, a friend a pilot could rely on: generous wing, plenty of smash in the two big hi-bypass engines slung beneath each wing. She climbed well, handled smoothly in roll and pitch. A reliable workhorse, a Percheron among jets, she deserved respect. You don’t just fly ’em, he thought to himself. Like horses, Noble, quiet, strong; you were privileged to be among them, much less ride them. He’d been downstairs as she sat at the gate, for no other reason than to take her in, the span of her wings, the smooth, flush-riveted and polished skin. Slide a hand down her flank; an ancient ritual from his Air Force days.

Beav fell silent. Finally, Taylor’s cue. “We planned 160.5, we closed at 160.9 for a takeoff weight of 161.5; set and crosschecked.” Amen, he thought but didn’t say. Respect the altar of fire and flight.

Opie had a a very pregnant wife plus a toddler at home. Sky Goddess had three kids and a husband with a badge and gun and the legal sanction to use it. On Opie, Taylor had warned. A dime-sized hole between his eyes, a bag of cocaine stuffed in his mouth and no further questions from the grand jury: no bill.

He set the brakes as a ponderous, four-engined Airbus took the runway. He shared the Bus crew’s cockpit moment, reviewing the litany–pilots called it that–going through the captain’s mind: idle power, speed brakes, boards, amen. Above eighty knots, abort for engines only. Meaning, the reality of flight: he was a pilot, made for flight, not a drag racer trying to stop an eighty ton tricycle. There was always that moment of relief when max abort speed was passed, committing them to flight. Much better for a pilot to handle a sick jet in flight rather than stop it, laden with tons of jet fuel looking for a flashpoint, on the ground. Pilots fly, godammit, and that’s what he’d sooner do. The Airbus rolled.

“Final’s clear,” The Beav broke into his reverie. That was a required call out. “And the clock is started,” Beav added. That was not required, but the eager one wanted the droll, soporific and taciturn captain blob to know he knew they’d need two minutes of wake turbulence spacing behind the heavy bus only just now but slowly rising into a dusty cobalt Texas sky.

Taylor knew. And he really didn’t care, looking at the windsock showing a steady crosswind. The wingtip vortices from the heavy would be a problem for those landing on the parallel runway, maybe, but not for them. Plus, they’d be in the air a thousand feet prior to where the euro-trash heavy broke ground, and sail way above the lumbering beast anyway.

Over time, Taylor knew you just get so familiar with the jet that the final minutes before takeoff become reflex driven. From the captain’s cyber-view, a green alphabet soup swam before his eyes in the HUD–Head UpDisplay–that couldn’t be sorted, shouldn’t be anyway: symmetry was the key. A battalion of aerospace engineers designed the semiotics to present a symmetry when all was well–airspeed, altitude, course, track; over seventy bits of detail, Taylor had counted–leaving the pilot free to concentrate on flying.

Beaver was leaping over the symmetry and quashing Taylor’s calm awareness of the rightness with a deluge of everythingness. He’d have to dial that back.

“Line up and wait,” came the call from the tower. Finally. He chimed the flight attendants to let them know “take off was imminent,” as the operating manual writers put it–more like, “grab yourself an assload of jumpseat, we’re fixin’ to fly this jet” in the less orthodox argot he tended to think in, sometimes speak in.

Time to roll the jet onto the runway, line it up on the numbers, ease it to a stop as the fuel sloshed and the nose dipped from the gentle braking. Then, the silent moment of peace before fifty-four thousand pounds of thousand degree thrust shattered the air with the hi-bypass howling growl and launched them down the runway.

Hang on, Beav, he thought to himself, looking five miles ahead and above in the dusty blue sky. This is going to be epic.

Flight Crew Reality: Travel Privileges are a Cruel Hoax

Posted in air travel, air traveler, airline, airline cartoon, airline industry, airline pilot, airline pilot blog with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 9, 2015 by Chris Manno

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Flight Crew Reality: Travel Privileges are a Cruel Hoax

There–I said it: travel privileges are a cruel hoax. If anyone is choosing an airline career based on the expectation of free air travel, you might as well start looking for a different job. Because the reality of crew life is this: airplanes are booked so full nowadays that non-rev travel is a frustrating, time-wasting ordeal that sucks the life out of days off.

It gets worse, too. In the past decade, every major airline has gone through dire financial restructuring. For flight crews, the end result is more work days per month, longer days per trip, with less off-duty rest between flights.

Bankruptcy at most major carriers resulted in the gutting of flight crew contracts, creating grueling work rules for diminished pay rates. So, we all fly more days per month at lower pay rates than ever before just to keep up.

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Most crewmembers who have been flying at least ten years accept this diminished reality, the longer days, lower pay and fewer days off. It’s the unfortunate evolution of the airline biz as it plays out in 2015 and sad as it is to see, we realize the “good old days” of easy non-rev travel, more days off, and longer rest breaks are a thing of the past.

Yes, you can still squeeze on for a few quick trips. But if you have an event to attend, a cruise or a resort prepaid, or several  people traveling with you, you’ll have to buy a ticket.

Many actually see an upside to full jets in terms of financial security for the airline issuing our pay checks. When customers drop off, and flight become less crowded, the trickle-down effect for airline employees is furloughs and pay cuts.

Heavy loads and the reduced ability to fly non-rev impacts crewmembers who commute the most, because if a flight is required for them to get from their home to their crew base, the small number of available unsold seats require them to spend even more time away from home.

There are two types of commuters–voluntary and involuntary. I feel sorry for the latter: they’re the very junior who have been displaced out of their home base due to manning cutbacks. For many, a family situation dictates that they must commute. This is a harsh, disheartening burden for them to bear, one that’s completely out of their control.

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The other type is the voluntary commuters. That is, though they may live within driving distance of a crew base, some voluntarily transfer to a base requiring a flight to get to work. They’re motivated by some perceived advantage, whether financial or other personal priority. Fine, and good luck: if I chose to commute to a more junior base like NYC or Miami, I could hold the 777 captain schedule of my choice. But I don’t, because I know the drawbacks, the wasted time, the reduced family time as a parent and spouse if I did.

Add about three times the stress, waiting and lost time with family that goes with the unprecedented high flight bookings that show no sign of relenting and the voluntary commute is less attractive than ever. Some still choose to do so, and more power to them.

Regardless, the “good old days” of easy nonrev travel and lots of free days off to pursue it are long gone. For the majority of the flight crew world, home and family responsibilities become the priority rather than leisure travel anyway after ten or fifteen years of flying. For the twenty-somethings new to the job and hoping to fly free, the full jets that make nonrev travel next to impossible are a measure of financial security they desperately need, because they’re the ones most vulnerable to furloughs if air travel demand drops off. Many would prefer the side effect of profitability–full seats–to the hazards of an airline downturn.

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Some crewmembers actually portray full aircraft and a nearly impossible pass travel situation as a plot against employees, but anyone who has been here more than ten years recalls two things that override such nonsense. First, we all remember the pay cuts, lost retirements and career stagnation of “the good old days” when air traffic was light And non-rev travel easy. And second, perhaps most important, we realize that the good old days of great layovers, long crew rest and days off are a thing of the past, permanently.

There are those who must commute and I feel sorry for them. There are those who choose to commute and I feel sorry for them, too. And there are those–including me–who wish pass travel was easier.

But those of us in the aircrew biz realize the reality of life today. If you’re tempted to take a flight crew job for the “free travel,” you’re going to be disappointed. And if you’re flying today but looking backwards to the good old days, complaining about the loss–get real: the good old days, like your nostalgic, time-aggrandized young aircrew days are gone for good. Like it or not, we’re moving on.

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Airline “Scare in the Air:” Laser Mythology

Posted in air travel, airline, airline cartoon, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 29, 2015 by Chris Manno

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Airline “Scare in the Air:” Laser Mythology

Took a laser in the side of my face last night as I was hand-flying a Boeing 737-800 with 170 people on board through about 500 feet on approach. My reaction?

Shrug. No big deal.

But that’s not the way that story would appear on social media, which brings up an important question: when did Americans become so trembly-fearful of everything? Typical headlines include “horror, terror, scare” for any incident, large or small, when it comes to air travel. After turbulence, mechanical problems, or any anomaly, social media burns like a Presto Log as passengers leap to fulfill the “scare” pronouncement with their own hero story, selfie, and video.

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But it’s really much ado about nothing–especially lasers. That’s why none of the other 168 people on board last night even knew about the laser hit, denying them the opportunity to gather “likes” and “follows” with a firsthand omigod we were hit by a laser on approach “scare” story. Unaware, they simply deplaned and went home. But here’s the “laser non-scare” reality.

First, we fly near much brighter flashes, sometimes right in our face, as we pass thunderheads at night. That’s just routine. A laser, by contrast, has a fraction of the candle power and unless it’s being pointed at us head on, it’s always a sidelong, oblique flash.

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The only way possible to get the light square into my eyes would be to somehow determine my exact landing aimpoint on the runway (not possible) and stand precisely there, aiming the light perfectly into my face, but that’s even less likely: from the front, we’re a tiny target that’s changing position constantly. And the laser “aimer” would have to be standing on the exact spot where seventy tons of metal was about to plop down doing about a hundred and fifty miles per hour. That’s a Wile E. Coyote, Darwin-esque scenario and NOT a “scare in the air.”

The side shot does nothing except maybe distract the pilot for a second, but no more so than the vista out my side window when I rolled us into a left bank turning onto final approach over the Texas Rangers ballpark which was lit up like a nuclear Christmas tree 3,000 feet below. Took a glance–go Rangers!–at that as I we sliced by at 220 knots in the turn, then back to business.

The laser flash? Of course I didn’t turn to look at it and unless you do–and why would anyone besides Wile E. Coyote do that–it’s simply a non-event. Typically, the illumination lasts a second or two at most because urban legend notwithstanding, it not easy to hit a two foot square window moving at between 150 and 200 miles per hour from a half mile below.

Sorry: no scare in the air. Thanks for flying with us. But like the recent hype about “drone danger,” social media will have to look elsewhere for the next “there I was” panic scenario. Laser illumination of the cockpit in flight not worth mentioning.

All the Wrong Answers to the GermanWings 9525 Questions

Posted in air travel, airline, airline cartoon, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airliner, airlines, German wings 9525 with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 26, 2015 by Chris Manno

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All the Wrong Answers to the GermanWings 9525 Crash Questions

As is always the case after an airline disaster, the media and shortly thereafter, regulators rush to propose a quick but ill-advised “fix.”

In this case, the proposed quick fix falls into one of two useless but unavoidable categories: technology and regulation.

In the first case, technology, the spectrum of bad ideas runs from remote control to cockpit access override. That reminds me of earlier, fun days flying a supersonic jet that began to accumulate pilot fatalities in low speed, low altitude ejections. The engineering fix was to install a drogue chute that deployed upon ejection to hasten the main parachute deployment. That worked fine until the first high speed, high altitude ejection when the drogue chute deployed at Mach 1 and the G forces cut the pilot in half.

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Back to today, talk in this airline tragedy is of an even more bizarre solution: remote control “intervention:” taking over the aircraft flight controls from the ground. Beyond the fact that I as a thirty year airline pilot will not set foot in a cockpit that can be commandeered by remote control, consider the added layer of vulnerability: beyond two pilots who “could go rogue,” you’ve now introduced an entire spectrum of people, entities and hackers capable of taking over the jet. Better? Really?

Yes, some type of cockpit access intervention “might” have worked to restore this one pilot to his rightful place, while opening every cockpit henceforth to an outside “intervener” which defeats the necessary cockpit exclusion no one disputes is necessary: if one can, eventually all can. Better?

Then there’s the regulatory crowd, for whom the semi-annual FAA pilot physical, recurring spot checks, blood and urine alcohol and drug testing is not sufficient to validate a pilot’s fitness to fly. What’s next, a psych exam before brake release? A background check beyond the extensive background checks we all have already? A credit report before each instrument report?

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Here’s the real problem: there are no quick solutions. Yet that’s what the public “demands”–for now, but only for now. The fact is, in Texas alone there have been 257 traffic deaths so far this year, yet no one’s calling for a twenty mile an hour speed limit or any other radical but certain solution. Yet the “1 in 11,000,000 chance” (Harvard 2006) of dying in a plane crash brings a public outcry for an immediate technological or regulatory intervention.

I watched Air Force One arrive once, the president bounding down the stairs and greeting the crowd as law enforcement snipers on rooftops looked on. No “remote control triggers,” no on-scene sharpshooter credit checks. Rather, the thinnest final line ever drawn: trust.

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In the end, that’s what it comes down to anyway: trust in your flight crew. There’s no simple solution to the rare and tragic occurrence that just transpired over the French Alps. But there is real danger in half-baked solutions that just add more layers of vulnerability to what is already 11 million to 1 odds in an airline passenger’s favor.

Despite the media frenzy driving an out of scale public reaction, no “solution” is better than a hasty, ill-conceived technological or regulatory bandaid that increases the very danger that started the panic in the first place.

If you don’t trust me in the cockpit, fine: trust yourself on the road. Your odds there are astronomically worse, if that matters to you, but at least the flying public will remain safe.

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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

737 landing crop

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.

fd1

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.

BA 747

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.

image

 

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.

image

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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