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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: Chapter 2.

Posted in air travel, airline novel, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airliner, flight attendant, flight crew with tags , , , , , , on April 22, 2016 by Chris Manno

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Have you read Chapter 1? Scroll down and you’ll find it. Here’s Chapter 2.

Chapter 2: Lurch and The Beaver

The spool-up growl of the big Snecma engines building to takeoff power still gave him a shot of adrenalin: such engineering marvels, spinning at thousands upon thousands of RPMs, a thousand degrees, flawlessly, for hours. Lurch toggled the TOGA button on the autothrottles then rode them with a loose hand on top, right up to the N1 setting he’d grudgingly briefed. Digital readouts blossomed and counted up, then held at 91.4, just as planned, then a shove in the pants, forward, turned loose.

“Thrust set, 91.4,” Bob announced confidently. That was required, so Lurch would just have to deal with it. He didn’t seem to like much talk in the cockpit, but Bob took solace in the stream of useful procedural information he could provide regardless. After all, the airline had crammed his head full of fifty thousand little BBs of information in ground school and he was determined to show that all the little brass pellets hadn’t yet–at least while he was on probation–dribbled out of his ears to scatter across the cockpit floor like mercury.

He loved the gathering rush of power and speed, the slight rudder walk as the towering tail slab bit the air and Lurch tapped it a notch left to make the nose wheel clear the kerthumping runway centerline lights. Lurch was a pro, no doubt about it. He’d handled even the worst combination of snow and winds and shit weather with a calm, quiet ease. But what a grouch.

“Gear up,” Lurch growled from the left seat, holding his right hand out, palm up, the signal for the command. Dammit–Bob had missed his “positive rate” call out, mandatory, confirming that the jet was climbing. And Lurch hadn’t waited for it.

The blessed instant of flight was an illusion, like his first flat spin in an Air Force jet: not that the jet spun but rather, the view did. Heart thumping, he’d been ready, at twenty-thousand feet in the clunky Tweet jet trainer, sucking on an oxygen hose with a mask mashed to his face, cinched up tight in the ejection seat. “You ready?” Death Ray had asked with a droll foreboding, from the right seat. “Yeah,” he’d answered, in a tone that said ‘fuck you, I’d sooner die than show fear in front of you.’ And he’d meant it.

Then Death Ray pulled the nose up, bled off the airspeed and stomped the rudder which induced a flat spin like a plate whirling atop a stick for a juggler, the wingtips sailing round and round and the jet flat plunging from 20,000 feet down to ten, straight down. Anticlimactic, it was; as if they in the cockpit stood still and the Earth and sky and view rotated around them. A moment of elation, not fear; “ain’t nuthin’ to this aviation shit” he’d echo with his flight buds in the bar that night.

So it was with takeoff: Lurch eased the yoke back and the Earth just fell away. Then, he set the pitch to freeze the airspeed and the Boeing rose, following the nose up to about twenty degrees, climbing and accelerating.

Frequencies were changed, tower handed them off to departure, the low sector first, as the litany of cleanup went step by step on the flight deck.

“Clean machine,” Bob said, verifying the wink-out of the green leading edge light, plus the two flap needles flush on zero. He resisted the urge, in deference to Lurch, to say the cabin was pressurizing, the fuel feeding from the center tank. Just tell me what’s wrong, the sourpuss had said, and if nothing is, nothing needs to be said. So he thought it to himself and left it at that.

Passing ten thousand feet, Lurch punched the flight attendant chime letting the cabin crew know they were no longer in “sterile cockpit.” Within a heartbeat, the crew interphone chime rang over Bob’s head.

“It’s for you,” Lurch said, never looking away from the sky ahead, still hand-flying the jet.

Bob grabbed the handset. “This is Bob–”

“Look, Bucko,” that would be Dixie, “Am I gonna have to teach you how to run the air?”

He didn’t know what to say. Dixie’d been flying since he’d been in high school, maybe before. When Lurch had introduced her–they seemed to go way back–she’d laughed and said, “I’m not bringing you a crew meal–I’m just going to take you up to my room and breast feed you.”

He didn’t look that young, at least in his own mind. But Dixie, Lurch and about half the crew force looked to be his parents’ age. Except that one in the back, Kerry? She was a newhire, like him. More his age.

“So turn up the air, Bucko,” brought him back to the problem at hand. He sighed, ready for the abuse that “twenty questions,” now required, would bring down on his head. Seemed like flight attendants couldn’t discuss the temperature with a clear statement of what they wanted. You had to drag it out of them. Did “turn it up” mean hotter or colder?

“Do you want it–”

She cut him off. “Look, I’m going to yank these goddam pantyhose off and put ’em over your head and see how well you breathe.”

Ah, she wants the cabin cooled down. “Okay, I’ll cool it a–”

“No,” she butted in, “You’ll give me full cold and I’ll say when.”

Yes ma’am, he wanted to say but decided not to tangle with the number one flight attendant, especially being acid-tongued Dixie. Why couldn’t sweet, young, blonde Kerry; no, Kelly was her name–why couldn’t she be number one?

“Okay,” he answered, reaching up to twist both cabin temp knobs to the cold side. “Here it comes.” She’d already hung up.

He adjusted the temperature rotary knob to display the cabin temp in both locations.

“Says it’s putting out seventy five degree–”

Lurch raised a hand, still looking ahead. “How long you been married?”

He thought about that. Oh. A “yes dear” moment. But up here, we’re pilots, not compliant hubbys, running state-of-the-art airliners with limits and procedures and know how.  Bob wasn’t buying it.

“Seven years,” Bob answered. “But the cabin temp is–”

“Whatever she says it is,” Lurch finished the sentence for him, turning to offer a rare, if wry smile, though his eyes remained inscrutable behind a pair of sunglasses. Not Aviators like Bob’s, he noted. Lurch didn’t seem to get into the airline pilot persona.

“Look,” Lurch offered, “They’re all back there running around, working, swathed in polyester, sweating. Who cares what a temp probe located God knows where says? Just do it.”

Bob shrugged. “Sure.”

“Did you fly the MD-80?” Lurch asked. Bob nodded. “Well, those packs go full cold at takeoff power. Not the Boeing. The pilots coming off the 80 always goose the heat out of habit, and always get a call like you just did. If the temp was okay on the ground, it’ll be okay in the air.” He reached up and moved the cockpit–“control cabin,” as only Boeing called it–temp controller a quarter turn to the left. “And the last thing I want on climbout is heat in the cockpit, too.”

Bob nodded, filing that away. The ground school instructor had warned them that if the temp control valve got frozen on the ground, it might remain stuck in the air. But he was gradually learning that there was a great disparity between ground school book knowledge and practical application in flight.

That was all new. The Air Force was all about reciting technical and procedural knowledge from various manuals. You were only better than the next guy if you could say more, memorize more, and show those above you what you knew.

“Guess I’m still in the Air Force squadron mode,” Bob said. “Standardization, orals.”

Lurch punched the “Command A” button.  “Autopilot’s on. Yeah, it takes awhile to move beyond that. But we’re not like that. Especially on this fleet.”

Air traffic control directed them to a new frequency, and the new controller cleared them to their final cruising altitude. Lurch set the altitude and confirmed it verbally with Bob.

“Three nine zero.” Lurch pointed to the altitude set window. “Thirty-nine,” Bob repeated. A wispy cirrus layer slipped under the nose, creating a flickering sun dog. As they climbed, the ground shrank into a carpet of browns and greens, then the higher they went, a tapestry of land and woods veined with spindly roads.

“The Air Force needs all that,” Lurch said. “Very new people flying and fixing complicated aircraft and missions. But the average pilot here has nothing but flight experience, and tons of it.”

Bob had to agree with that. “And even better,” Lurch continued, “We’re not fighting each other for promotion.”

That had been one of the prime reasons Bob had been glad to leave the Air Force. Promotion was one part proven skill, two parts politics and sucking up. In the airline pilot world, promotion was all about seniority, longevity which, by nature normally meant an assload of flight time.

“Takes time,” Lurch offered charitably. “But you’ll learn to ease up.”

Easy for you to say, Bob thought to himself. You’re half retired as it is, flying only turns to either coast, home every night. GOOMSOM, the acronym was scrawled in the kitbag room: “Get Out Of My Seat, Old Man.” Meaning, for old guys like Lurch, retire. Bob allowed himself an inward smile.

Yeah, he was junior and he knew it. Still puppyish about the thrill of flying, and nothing but flying, since he’d left the political ass-kissing contest of Air Force squadron life.

He didn’t even mind being on reserve, though so many of the older guys griped about it. Life was good, whatever he got called to fly by Crew Sked was better than just sitting in the always crowded and usually smelly crash pad. Even this turn with Lurch, as he’d nicknamed him. He’d have a great yarn to spin back at the crash pad and–

The printer hummed and immediately, Lurch had a hand on the printed message and tore it down and off. The old guy stared at it for a moment.

“Fuck.” He handed the message to Bob, who read and then reread the short message.

“Fuck,” Lurch muttered again. Bob laid the flimsy paper on the Comm pedestal. Wow. Things were about to get crazy.

[Note: Chapter 3 is done and will be posted soon]

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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What if your airline pilot falls ill in flight?

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

I wrote a complete explanation for Mashable–just click here for the full article.

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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.

Your Flight is Running Late? Not So Fast.

Posted in air travel, air traveler, airline, airline cartoon book, airline delays, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot blog, airlines with tags , , , , , , , on August 28, 2015 by Chris Manno

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When I was a Check Airman for my airline, supervising new captains on their first flights in the left seat, I always did one thing consistently over a three day trip: about twenty miles from landing, I’d cover the fuel gages with my hand and ask, “How much fuel do you have?”

What does that have to do with your flight running late? Everything.

And here’s where the passenger in a time crunch and the pilot-in-command part ways: time, speed and fuel.

They’re interrelated and while we both share the goal of getting there, the pilots need to “get there” with as much fuel as possible. That’s because more fuel means more flying time available, which means more options. So by day three of my trip with a new captain, he always knew how much fuel–and thus flight time–he had available, because he (or she) knew I’d ask. After over 24 years as captain at the world’s largest airline, that’s a habit pattern I personally maintain to this day: fuel is time, and my job is to wring as much time as possible out of every drop of fuel on board.

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No, that doesn’t mean I want to fly as long as possible–I want to be able to fly as long as possible. Big difference, but the reality is, if I don’t have fuel in reserve, I don’t have time in reserve either, and both are crucial in case of delays due to weather, peak air traffic volume and even mechanical anomalies. And that’s just in the terminal area on arrival.

Enroute, there could be more weather we need to fly around safely (more miles–and fuel–burned) plus, the optimum altitude might not be available or, if it is, there may be a dissimilar aircraft ahead for whom we’ll be speed-restricted, causing us to burn more fuel. Throw in the frequent Air Traffic Control reroute or off-course spacing vector, and you have a significant potential for fuel over burn above the planned consumption.

On a flight of more than three hours, even a 10% fuel over burn can significantly limit a pilot’s options on arrival: can I hold for weather and traffic congestion, and for how long, before I have to divert?

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Add more air miles–and thus more fuel burn–to stay safely upwind of storms.

So we have the potential for weather and traffic delays, altitude restrictions and even mandatory re-routing by Air Traffic Control, all of which can and typically do eat away at our fuel reserves. These limiting factors can pop up at any time after takeoff and the fact is, there’s no more fuel to be had at that point, leaving you one option--save as much as possible enroute. Which means the highest, optimum altitude at the most economical speed.

Ironically, Air Traffic Control may even need you to fly a faster than optimum speed for a long stretch of time in order to equalize traffic flow, and you’d better have enough fuel to comply but still maintain your fuel reserves for arrival regardless.

Juxtapose that reality with the option of flying “faster to make up time.” First, a jet is not like your car–if you push the speed up ten percent, depending on your altitude, your fuel consumption may go up during the higher speed cruise by 20-30%. But how much time would you make up? Over a three hour flight, maybe ten minutes at most. Is that worth blowing all of your options, especially knowing that destination areas delays could wipe that out anyway? Is it prudent to fly hellbent-for-leather to shave off a fraction of the delay at the cost of having zero options once you get there?image

Fuel and time: the buck stops here.

The answer, of course, is no, it doesn’t make sense to “speed up to make up time.” Believe me, no one wants to finish the flight any sooner than the working crew, but never at the expense of what we know lies ahead, and therefore, what makes sense.

Certainly, you can ask the pilots to “fly fast,” but the result will be predictable no matter what you may hear.

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Airliners in Weather: What the Hail?

Posted in air travel, airline cartoon, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airline safety, aviation weather with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 13, 2015 by Chris Manno

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Recently, a Boeing 787 and an Airbus 320 made headlines with dramatic photos of hail damage to the radomes and leading edges of the airfoils. That type of news story prompts the question from friends, family and passengers, “Can’t pilots see hail coming?”

My answer is threefold: yes, no, and it’s not that simple. Let’s take each part in order.

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On a normal flight, the above outside view would be depicted like this on a cockpit nav display:

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The magenta line is our filed flight path–where Air Traffic Control (ATC) expects us to be. To simplify for the sake of brevity, green areas are precipitation, red, convection, meaning uplifting air.

So yes, we can often see it coming because we know that convection can heave massive amounts of moisture upward with great force, into altitudes where the temperature could easily be -35C or less. This flash-freezes the moisture into ice pellets, with the size determined by variables of speed and temperature. I’ve felt and heard the sizzling sound of such particles impinging on my aircraft at over 40,000 feet–they’re fairly tiny and mostly innocuous at high altitude–not so in the lower, denser air.

Regardless, here’s where the “no” of my tripartite answer comes in. Like the ill-advised New Year’s Eve tradition some gun owners have of celebratory fire, what goes straight up comes back down–but the question is, where?

An enormous volume of hail spewed from the top of a thunderhead will get caught up in the winds aloft and they vary from near zero to over 100 mph. It’s not unusual for wind to blow a hail storm ten or more miles from the core of the thunderhead that lifted the moisture in the first place.

At night, the lightning may be obvious, but storm contours are not.

At night, the lightning may be obvious, but storm contours are not.

Can an you see that on radar? Maybe. Normally, you have the radar looking ahead, not up. What was a clear path, suddenly may be filled with hail, even miles away from the original source.

Which brings me to “it’s not that simple.” Both of the recent hail damage incidents occurred at low altitude, and by that I mean below 20,000 feet, which is a complicated area: jetliners don’t cruise that low, so the airspace is filled with a conflicting mix of climbing and descending aircraft. ATC does a fantastic job of sorting the mix crammed into often constrained airspace. But the problem is, that doesn’t leave much room for deviating around weather.

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In fact, with so many aircraft being managed on a particular frequency, it’s extremely difficult to even get a course change request to ATC. Add to that a ground speed often between 200 and 300 miles per hour and you have a dilemma: yes, you can see some weather threats, no, you can’t see all of them and avoiding weather and other jets in crowded airspace is simply put, not easy. Things change rapidly, virtually by the minute, and we’ll cover many miles in that time.

I can’t stress enough how versatile and responsive ATC is in managing tight airspace filled with dissimilar aircraft on assorted routes and changing altitudes. But as the mix becomes more dense, this high-speed Rubik’s becomes an outlandishly devilish puzzle.

In the cockpit, know that we’re using every means at our disposal to detect and track weather. We gauge the wind effect out of the top of a storm, we plot a course upwind of effects, we pass along what we’ve found to ATC and other aircraft.  Count on the reality that everyone on the ground and in the air is doing everything possible to avoid or, in the worst case, escape from bad weather.

Even the fact that only two aircraft out of the thousands in flight that day made the news with hail damage is good news in itself: pilots and ATC are pretty good at handling weather. Still, there’s only so much room and little leeway to detect and avoid hail.

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That’s the real news, and the good news far outweighs the bad: flying to Philly yesterday, I can’t compliment both ATC and the dozens of other pilots in the air for sharing information about clear passages, turbulence and new routings. I don’t know how Center and Approach do it, but the responsiveness and quick reaction is amazing.

I’m especially grateful that my airline has made installation of cutting edge radar technology in my cockpit a priority: yes, it’s expensive, but they want me to have the best, most current weather picture as I approach a front with you on board.

Our newest radar–which I’m glad to have available–displays three dimensions, is linked to our nav system so it always knows exactly where it is and thus screens out ground clutter and geographic features, and displays a predictive movement of hazards. It’s always on, scanning for potential problems and will pop up on cockpit displays if it detects something even if we’ve selected another depiction.

So there you have it. Yes, no, and it’s complicated–those are my answers to the question, “Can’t you see hail from the cockpit?” The big-picture view is that we’re all working together to stay out of the headlines. I’ll be flying to LaGuardia and back tomorrow and the fact that you WON’T read about my flight underscores everything I’ve just said.

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