Archive for approach

The REAL Captain’s Guide: How To Fly That Crap Weather Approach.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airline safety, fear of flying, flight crew with tags , , , , , , on September 30, 2016 by Chris Manno


First, let’s define “real” captain. I don’t mean “real” in the sense of physical, tangible, bad-layover-clothes, mouth-breathing captain, although I’ve been one at a major airline for 25 years and counting. You’re “real” as a captain on Day One when you’re turned loose with the rating.

What I mean by “real” is as in, “get real.” That’s because we know there are several things you face as captain with the dogshit weather approach. First, there’s what you’re told. Second, there’s what you know. Finally, there’s where the reality plays out: from the final approach fix inbound at 180 knots across the ground. There’s stuff you need to do to be ready for that.

The first item, “what you’re told,” includes the OpSpec that allows you to do what you’re about to do: fly a big jet with a lot of folks–including your crew–into minimally adequate weather for landing. OpSpec includes a minimalist element (what’s the least we can send you into the most challenging weather?) that allows airlines to earn revenue for what you’re about to do.

air applause anger management

What you’re told also includes the prevailing weather at the time they told you, which is nowhere near the time at which you’ll actually fly the approach. If I sound like a captain who’s had that detail bite him in the ass–it’s because I am.

So, here’s the BTDT viewpoint that goes beyond the classroom and the manuals. Not interested in stuff beyond the books? Don’t need the BTDT captain viewpoint? Please close this blog page now. No harm, no foul. Best of luck.

Okay, still here? The others gone? Good.


First, your approach starts in the chocks before pushback. No, I don’t mean “be the dork who starts stressing or worse, briefs the approach before engine start.” Rather, I mean be the captain the FO can rely on as soon as you sit down. Stay the hell out of his way as he (or she)  works. Respect–but check–the setup of the cockpit for takeoff. You ain’t perfect, so don’t expect your FO to be, and let him (or her) know YOU can be counted on as a team member to be sure you both do well from the first checklist. That’s what you want later: a collaborative, respectful environment where your FO knows you’re relying on each other step by step. The FO needs to be looking for and free to point out your screwups.

Second, “what you’re told” versus what you know can be tricky. Weather forecast versus delays you’ve seen versus altitude restrictions and the list goes on: variables, unreliables, despite “what you’ve been told.” But what everyone knows is this: fuel equals time. When that sixth sense picks at the back of your brain saying we might could use more fuel–you really do so get it before release. If you’re wrong (trust me, you won’t be–the only time you can have too much fuel is when you’re on fire) then you land with more time options. But if you’re at minimum fuel you’ll have to tear the seat cushion out of your ass after landing because your butt cheeks ate it up like horse’s lips do while you stressed about weather delays.


Finally, downwind. If you’re flying, relax: you’re not that asshole captain showing how it’s done (okay, you really are) but rather, you’re doing what you know to your core you’re damn good at. So, be humble, be quiet, be methodical, procedurally correct and do exactly what’s called for. Show your FO how you want the approach flown.

FO flying? Even better: relax, back up everything done, think ahead of the jet and while you do, let the FO do the flying exactly as it’s supposed to be done. Getting slightly off track? Guide back to best practices with suggestions, positive affirmations and last resort–LAST RESORT–directive, which sounds like “Let’s go ahead and ____” or “I’m not comfortable with ____.”

Remember, if what you’re told hours ago before takeoff matches what you encounter at the final approach fix, that’s a coincidence. You fly “real” based on what you know, which includes every experience and subsequent intuition derived therefrom–apologize to no one, get the fuel you need and decide for yourself if OpSpec minimums are adequate to meet the challenge facing you in realtime. We don’t fly on paper, on a spreadsheet, or on a chart of minimums page. Remember the horse’s lips/seat cushion metaphors: get fuel, think ahead, respect your FO, believe what you know (school of hard knocks) and fly smart, conservative and REAL.

Then, from Final Approach Fix to touchdown or go-around, you’re smart, confident, safe, and real. No one can ask you for more and as captain, you cannot do anything less, nor accept anything but the best you can do, by leading, coaching and most of all, being real.

Fly safe, compadres.


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, captain–DECIDE.

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

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


And we have one shot, I tell him, then I’m putting clearance on request (actually did that as soon as we were switched to tower frequency) to Ontario. If the storm looks impassable on radar, option 3 is declare an emergency for fuel and barge into the LAX landing sequence. Don’t like that idea, but if we’re down to option 3, there is no other choice.

I also plot the magic number for SNA winds: 110 degrees and 290 degrees. For the precision landing runway, any wind beyond those two cardinal points strays into the verboten tailwind area. Asked about landing the other direction and the answer was: long delay. Not possible, for us.

Already requested and had the data linked chart for our landing weight sent up to the aircraft: we require 5,671 feet on a wet runway, good braking, zero tailwind. Each knot of tailwind adds 150 to the distance required, so even one knot of tailwind exceeds the runway length.

I switch my nav display from a compass arc to a rose: the full 360 display. I’m getting wind checks all the way down final and watching my cardinal points, alert for an excedence.

There’s a wind display on my HUD, too, but I realize that’s a calculation that is at least 15 seconds old. Eyeballs and experience tell the tale: he’s glued mostly to his instruments to fly a flawless ILS, but I’m mostly eyeballs-outside, monitoring speed, azimuth and glide path through the HUD, but paying attention to the realtime wind cues. He knows if I don’t like what I see, I’ll say, “Go-around” and we will be on to option 2 immediately. I know that if he doesn’t like the way the approach is going, he’ll announce and fly the go-around without any questions from me.

I tell him that if everything is stable on approach, let’s make a final wind analysis at 200 feet. If we’re both satisfied, silence means we’re both committed to landing.


I review in my head the rejected landing procedure. That is, if we touch down but I judge we can’t stop, throttle max, speed brakes stowed, flaps fifteen, forward trim, back into the air.

Clear your mind, focus on the plan: hate math, but I can sure see the compass depiction that means a verboten tailwind. Poor viz in heavy rain, but once I spot the VASIs, I can tell what the wind is doing to us. He’s flying a hell of a good approach. One final wind check at 200 feet. “That’s within limits,” I say, just to let him know that component is fine. He’s flying–if it doesn’t feel right, I want him to feel free to go-around immediately.

I don’t want to see high or low on either glide path or speed. No worries–he’s nailed it, both are stable.

A firm touchdown, then my feelers are up for hydroplaning: none. Speedbrakes deploy, but we’re not committed until reverse thrust. The MAX brakes grab hold, good traction; we’re fine, reverse thrust, I take over at 100 knots.

Silence in the cockpit. “Excellent job,” I say as we clear the runway, glad we didn’t have to execute either backup plan. Relief, Boeing has built us a damn fine, stable jet for this weather, this day, this runway.

Now, put that all behind–we still have to fly out of here in less than an hour. And do it all again tomorrow.


The Annual Pilot Beating

Posted in air travel, airline, airline pilot, airline pilot blog with tags , , , , , , , on December 19, 2013 by Chris Manno

awful house

Awful House, 4:30 am.

Try to decide which is worse–the two roaches scurrying around the condiments, or the lame-brained guy in the paper hat, prattling on about his guts while you try to eat.

“You ever get that real sharp gut pain,” he asks, “where all of a sudden you really have to go to the bathroom super bad?”

Must be cancer, I want to say but don’t. You should get it checked out.

What I really don’t want to do is chat here at the buttcrack of dawn while I’m trying to cram one last run-through of the memory items I’ll be expected to recite for the oral exam prior to the simulator exam: “Passenger switches–on.”

What the hell is a “passenger switch?” Actually, that should read “fasten belts switch,” because that’s what you need in a rapid depressurization. Boeing obviously misprinted the step, but since Boeing published the procedure, if you don’t recite it their wrong way–it’s wrong.

awful 2

And there are pages and pages of numbers, stats, limits, operating procedures and legalities, all fair game for the oral exam. Experience proves that the best defense is a good offense:

Question: what’s the crosswind limit for a Category 3 approach?
Answer: 15, but that may be further reduced by the runway condition to 10 if the RCR is less than good, which brings the requirement for an Autobrakes setting of 3 or MAX.

Answer more questions before he can ask them.

And pay with cash here: the guy at the register is either an ex-con or a heroin addict; the neck tattoos and shaved head could go with either.

The 05:30 “Stump the Dummy” (me) session goes as planned: two hours that are part instruction, passing along new or revised procedures, as well as asking questions–and me over-answering as a defense. That worked, because now we’re on to the simulator check. Today we have one of the new, most advanced “boxes,” with all-electric motors (no hydraulic carnival ride) and the most advanced digital visual with Google Earth displays.

And for me, a windfall: there was no line first officer scheduled for my sim–so I get a “seat filler.” That means an instructor, and today it’s Bev. She knows the aircraft systems and procedures inside and out–because she teaches them every day.


This first part, planned for around two hours, is termed by the FAA a “jeopardy event.” That is, if you don’t handle everything correctly, you lose your flight qualification. No pressure–just your ability to make a living at stake.

We start with a low-visibility take-off: fog and a visibility of 500 meters. Brief all the usual stuff, plus the extras: Localizer frequency tuned and identified, specified usable within the threshold, HUD set NP with correct runway length, runway heading set. Of course, a question before takeoff:

Evaluator: what’s the limit for the take-off alternate?

Me: 330 miles or the lowest minimum at the departure field for a single-engine return, which is 300 feet, and the present viz is 500.

Over answer–good defense.

Once “aloft,” we return to set up for a Category 3 landing, which is through weather to the lowest limit of my qualification, which is 50′ and a visibility 300 feet.

“Take the airplane,” I tell Bev, “I have to make the new FAA-ordered PA about electronic devices.”


“Good job,” says the evaluator. Maybe he thought I’d forget–the change only came out this week–but I didn’t. We hit all of the marks to set up the approach, then fly it carefully to a landing under an indefinite ceiling and 1/8 mile of visibility.


Then, through the magic of flight simulators, the computer slingshots us back out on final to fly the approach again, this time to a low-altitude missed approach. That’s a two-part test: you have to prove that you can do the maneuver, no easy task at 50′ and marginal visibility, and you have to prove that you can discern when to go-around and when to land.

Hand-flying the approach, near the ground, at 50 feet: nada. I punch the go-around power toggle on the throttles and we pitch up aggressively, away from the runway.

“Flaps 15 . . . positive rate (means we’re climbing) gear up.”

We’re climbing like a scalded cat, I’m watching the speed increase so I can safely call for configuration changes and NOT overspeed the flaps as we rocket skyward.

cockpit night

All is well through flaps fifteen, flaps five, flaps two; Bev, ever the excellent First Officer, warns me: Houston, we have a problem.

A glance above my head to the flaps display panel shows a trailing edge flap segment stuck extended. The jet wants to roll, I won’t let it.

In Cat 3 conditions, especially below 100 agl, a go-around can mean ground touchdown regardless, so naturally it’s done with full TOGA power and pitch.

That compresses the procedure, and split flaps disrupts the cleanup, yet the power (and thus over speed and altitude bust potential) remains high. Throw in the fact that by design, all 737-800 go-arounds are hand flown, and the missed approach was deliberately chosen because it has a 2-step level off, first at 3,000, then a turn and a climb to 4,000.


Will you remember the 3,000′ hold down, especially at max power, with cleanup disrupted?

Again, you slow down and prioritize: I’m thinking level off and speed control. We’re forced out of our normal litany for cleanup, but we’ll claim the time and space we need–not rushing–to accomplish everything. I tell Bev “Declare an emergency, tell tower we’re going straight ahead at 4,000.” Why fight the 3,000′ level off? She concurs.

Then we have to set up an RNAV LOC which must be flown with LNAV VNAV, but you have to recognize that VNAV doesn’t sense a flaps 2 landing and will put you below the 168 KIAS Vref for flaps 2.

Also, with  a runway visual range less than 4,000 feet, the runway is technically wet (better not miss that) and landing distance with a 168 KIAS Vref will be critical.

Which leads to the ATC controller trying to induce us to take a pattern turn to crosswind, I refuse because we have too many checklists to do. That leads to the instructions to hold present position, left turns, which I could also refuse, but I do know that’s a test too: can you set up holding on the fly? And will you remember that “present position hold” sets up right hand turns, which must be changed or you end up in the wrong airspace.

In holding, Bev and I work through all abnormal flaps and emergency landing checklists; I go to school on the adverse roll moment the autopilot is obviously fighting to be ready for the hand flown final, recall from experience that a flaps 2 landing will be at high speed and power must go to idle uncomfortably early or you will float and the wet landing distance will eat you alive.

And don’t forget to modify the standard LNAV-VNAV procedure with “speed intervene;” some might try flying it with autothrottles off, but that’s flirting with the Asiana screwup in San Francisco, with the added challenge of marginal weather with an abnormal configuration. Think that might be distracting?

Throttles idle over the fence, decent touchdown, reverse and ABS. Bev counts down the airspeed as we roll out. Final question: “Would you taxi clear?”

Me: “No. The runway’s already closed for the emergency.” And it will need to be checked by the airport managers before reopening anyway.

Check Airman: “Well done, jeopardy part is complete. Take ten minutes, I’ll set up for the second half.”

Done. The next two hours will be advanced training: stalls, engine failures, tailwinds into short fields, engine failures with high flap settings on short runways, double engine failures; all just good training. The Check Airman is one of the best and I lucked out getting him for an evaluator and Bev as a seat filler.

And when the advanced training is complete, back to the real world and the real jet. Good for another nine months or ten thousand miles–whichever comes last. I think a cup of coffee is in order, maybe something to eat–I will find both, my better judgment dictates, anywhere but the Awful House.

throttle bugeye

Un-Pilotish: Just Say No.

Posted in airline, airline cartoon, airline pilot blog, airliner, flight, flight crew, jet with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 4, 2013 by Chris Manno


Top of descent with a hundred knots of tailwind. You’ve been asking for a descent for the last forty miles with no success, and you know why: outbounds are climbing below you and worse, they’re staying low nose to nose because of what’s been a tailwind for you since the west coast–but which would be a headwind for them westbound.

So it’s the double-whammy: high, and hot; closing on the altitude crossing restrictions are cramping the descent algorithm–there’s not enough “forward” left to to execute a civilized “down.”


“Cross Fever at 11,000 and 250 knots,” comes the ATC instructions, and I immediately think of a captain I used to fly with in the 1980s who would have, without hesitation, answered, “We can do it–but we’ll have to leave the airplane behind.” Instead, I just say, “Unable.”

I know, I know: we probably could make the crossing restriction, but why play the odds? And if you’ve flown long enough, you know the odds are about 90% that this ain’t the end of the story: the Dreaded Hypotenuse. That is:

STAR TW direct

You’re going to get cleared direct to another point, shaving off the miles of “forward” you were counting on to execute the “down” at a civilized rate–with the same crossing restriction. Last month up in New York Center I heard a commuter pilot on frequency asking for relief on a crossing restriction he had innocently enough accepted fifty miles back: “Can we get relief on that crossing restriction?”

Without missing a beat, NY Center replied, “Absolutely not.” Now who wishes they were a heretic–or wants to leave the airplane behind?

unable 3

And there’s the problem: “unable” is, well, un-pilotish. Which is actually not a bad thing to strive for. Here’s what I’m thinking: for some reason, the “cultural” aspect of being a pilot has insidiously taken on a life of its own: we can do anything, best any challenge, defy gravity, wear ridiculously big watches

–which is a latent “Flavor Flav” urge driving many pilots, which I’ve never understood–and sometimes we forget in the “never say no”  to a challenge mindset that one person we should more often say no to is ourselves. Still with me? Let’s have a new captain flashback.

MFE 31

Fog creeping up the Rio Grande Valley like a ghost; moonless night dark as space. Tons of gas, literally, and paper calculations that equal one good approach to minimums, then divert to San Antonio. Tidy plan. Works well on paper.

Unable? My ass: can do!


After the first missed approach (wow, the ceiling really is below the minimum descent altitude) the new captain consults the F-100’s “Progress–Fuel Predict” readout, which shows enough endurance for a second approach–then a divert to San Antonio.

Today’s captain voice-in-the-head, some 20 years more experienced, says, “Tell yourself no, stupid!” Divert now. For the record–then and now–I’ve never had a big pilot watch, or aviator sunglasses, or a creepy mustache, or any of the other silliness that seems to be part of the pilot stereotype. But I did have that “never back down from a challenge” mentality that I guess lands you in the cockpit in the first place.

fuel mc

“We’re requesting one more ILS, with clearance on request to San Antonio on the missed approach,” the intrepid First Officer relayed to the Approach Controller. Fine, thought the new captain; we can do this.

Second approach, same result: pea soup. On the second missed approach, Departure control sends us to Enroute: “State your request.”

We’d like to go direct San Antonio at 14,000′. San Antonio is now 1/8th mile visibility in fog.  You planning to hold?

Actually, planning to just say no–first to myself, then anyone else offering an uncertain gamble, challenge or no, in flight from now on. How unpilotish–and yet, common-sensical.

We raced the sinking temperature-dewpoint spread blanketing the state south to north with fog and landed in Austin with less fuel than I’d ever seen on the gages before–although my base Chief Pilot, over a couple of beers, told me he’d actually landed with less. He’s a “say no” guy now, too.

And that’s the whole deal: say “no” early–and often. Let Air Traffic Control manage their own airspace congestion without expecting an airshow on your part. Talk yourself out of any bad bets before anyone can even suggest you play the odds.

And above all–avoid the pilot stereotype.  It really doesn’t fly well, despite the mythology.

ramp d

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog:

Here’s an excerpt:

About 55,000 tourists visit Liechtenstein every year. This blog was viewed about 170,000 times in 2012. If it were Liechtenstein, it would take about 3 years for that many people to see it. Your blog had more visits than a small country in Europe!

Click here to see the complete report.

Airport Smackdown: Jethead vs. LaGarbage

Posted in air travel, airline delays, airliner, airlines, airport, flight, flight crew, flight delays, jet, jet flight, passenger, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 20, 2011 by Chris Manno

What better to beat the blistering heat of a Jethroplex summer than a float in your own ce-ment pond? You bid the later-in-the-day flights and you’re senior enough to hold them. That means the morning run–helps you sit still for the 6 or 7 hours you’ll be in the air–and an early afternoon swim. Then, reality check waiting on the iPhone:

You knew that. LaGarbage today, tomorrow too–then LAX the next day. That’s your work week. Get ready.

That’s the current radar picture in the New York metro area. The stuff just north of Tom’s River will be a problem if it doesn’t move out to sea. You can tell there’s a front line between Jersey and NYC somewhere–just look at the temperature difference. Cold air slipping under warm air produces big boomers, and it doesn’t take much of that to disrupt the inbound flow to Kennedy, Newark and of course, LaGuardia. Shrug. Deal with it when you get there–but prepare for it before you take-off: more fuel.

Of course, that’s a double-edged sword too: LaGuardia is a short runway with virtually no overrun on either end–just Flushing Bay. No, it’s not as extremely short as Burbank, John Wayne-Orange County or The Dreaded 33 in Washington (5,000′). But it’s short enough–especially if it’s wet–to make landing weight important. DFW: 13,000 feet of concrete, overruns and clear zones beyond. LaGarbage? A friction overlay on the end of 22 and 13, (wanna test that out?) murky water everywhere else.

Preserve your options: arrive with enough fuel for holding and a go-around. The 737 is a good stopping jet–as is the MD80–and the 737 is very stable on approach. No big worries about airspeed control or pitch.

Confer with Flight Dispatch: they have you flight planned in the mid-thirty thousands because of previously reported chop. Fine, but we’ll check ahead en route and decide if we can’t cruise higher and save more fuel. Plus, our route will arc north, then east, picking up more tailwind as we go. Should put us over upstate New York fat on fuel.

Board 160 passengers. Preflight. Taxi out. Climb.

Life settles down to cruise: fuel flow, ETAs, routing. As expected, the ride is reported smooth in the low 40s by aircraft there now, so we climb and save more fuel, plus put ourselves above most of the weather trying to build itself into the stratosphere from the sun’s climbing radiance.

Radar watch is beginning to turn up signs of the frontal clash converging on the northeast. Super radar–good picture out beyond 300 miles, has it’s own GPS so it knows where all topographical features are and screens them out of the radar image. Good to be sure that what we’re seeing is nothing but weather.

Lunch? Dinner? Whatever–it’s the last food you’ll see today. Everything at LaGarbage will either be closed or out beyond security, which you don’t have time for: they’ll be clamoring to board 160 passengers outbound as soon as you get there. Speaking of which, within an hour of landing, we can get the current weather at LaGuardia and print it out:

Fine. Planning on 22; landing south and into the wind, no real storm threats or complications. Set up nav aids, discuss the approach with the F/O. Verify the runway in the Flight Management System (FMS) and the Heads Up Display (HUD). Validate all of the altitude and airspeed restrictions on the arrival.

The FMS begins its backward countdown of miles to go and upward count of vertical velocity required to satisfy the arrival restrictions. Cool?

Not so fast. Just checking onto a new frequency and you hear holding instructions being given to some unlucky aircraft. Now, that either means someone south of you (Atlanta? Philly?) or someone north (Boston?) has an inbound backup. Or–it’s New York Center airspace that’s enjoying a traffic jam at altitude. You bring up the holding page on the FMS display. Here it comes.

“American 738, hold west as published at MIGET. Expect further clearance at  0115.” Figures. Well, okay–holding endurance? Like you haven’t thought of that already. At altitude, we’re at an incredibly low fuel burn.

We can loiter for the better part of an hour. One thing about EFCs (Expect Further Clearance) you can count on is–you can’t count on them. So plan accordingly. On your side is your altitude, fuel flow and fuel reserve. The jets cruising lower enter holding there and burn more fuel as a result. Set up the entry and the hold:

EFCs are a best guess by Air Traffic Control, but they can be very pessimistic. Even if you can’t hold as long as they predict, you can hold till your endurance runs out and you need to bingo (divert to your alternate). Some pilots I know like to “Go Ugly Early:” if you think there’s a good chance you’ll have to divert, beat the rush for fuel and a turnaround at the divert station.

I’d rather stay high and slow and see what shapes up. We all still divert when you reach Bingo fuel, it’s just a difference in strategy.

New York Center is offering “Rockdale,” a navigation point north of  LaGarbage and in Boston Center’s airspace. Get released from holding immediately and approach from the north is the deal they’re offering, and some jets are taking it. I don’t think so; we have a good, high altitude perch here with a low fuel burn. Rockdale requires a lower cruise, inevitably, with higher burn–and no guarantees when you get there. Sure, maybe Boston Center has less aircraft but you still have to eventually get sequenced into new York Center’s flow.

It’s like switching lines at the grocery store: pick the short line and someone will need a price check or will have a zillion coupons to verify. Meanwhile, some jets below are starting to Go Ugly early–Philly’s going to be a mess. And the winds are shifting at LaGarbage–they’re switching landing runways:

Refiguring the approach is not a big deal. But it’s a bad sign: runway changes take time and lead to a huge backup on the ground at LaGuardia. Plus shifting winds mean unpredictable weather due to frontal passage. Alright, plan “B” is the runway 4 approach. Reprogram the FMSs, the courses and the nav radios.

Holding is eating up fuel, which is actually easing the stopping distance–but check it anyway. And use the chart for a wet runway while you’re at it. Figure on the worst case and the most Autobrakes, say 3 or maybe even max.

More jets at the bottom of the stack are heading for Philly; we’re still sound fuel-wise. Patience.

Finally! Released from holding, cleared downline. Do the numbers: what fuel will you arrive with but more importantly, assuming a go-around at LGA, what will you land with at JFK (that’s the plan) after? Numbers show actually about a 1-2 thousand pound surplus. Perfect.

Now we’re committed–not going to climb back into the enroute sector (too much fuel burn). And now the glass shows what the radar has been painting.

The ugly blotches here are actually the towering cumulus we’re sinking into here:

Already have the crew strapped in, all passengers down. Actually, the bad weather is a relief in a way: everything slows down as radar separation is increased. Plus, the approach is a straight-in, precision approach rather than the hairpin visual approach that is officially called the “Expressway Visual:”

Lots more fun from a pilot standpoint, but definitely more hectic. Finally, the wide swing to finally. Configure. In the slot: altitude, airspeed, configuration, glide slope, localizer.

Minimums: see the runway, land carefully; immediate reverse.

Now, the elephant walk to the gate. Park.

No time for relaxing–it all starts again in 50 minutes, outbound with another 160 passengers impatiently waiting to board. The inbound holding and the LaGarbage ground congestion has already set us behind schedule, and passengers have connections to make at DFW.

That’s the workday–only another 1300 air miles to go. Let’s get to work.

After the storm: fly home–but not so fast.

Posted in air travel, aircraft maintenance, airline delays, airliner, airlines, airport, flight, flight crew, jet, jet flight, night, pilot, weather, wind shear with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 26, 2011 by Chris Manno

After the divert to Wichita Falls, time to gas and go: Flight Dispatch says DFW is accepting arrivals. That’s all we needed to hear–we’re refueled and refiled with Air Traffic Control. As soon as we’re released by tower, we’re in the black night and headed south to DFW at 280 knots.

Would be flying faster, but 280 is the best turbulence penetration speed and though the ride’s not overly bumpy, the latticework of cloud to cloud lightning straight ahead promises roughness. We’re making a beeline for one of the four arrival corner posts for DFW at 10,000 feet.

Things will happen fast on a 70 mile flight, and the First Officer is flying: he’s sharp, and that allows you as captain to oversee all of the preparation, the checklists, the navigation and most importantly, the radar. Approaching midnight, we’re now 12 hours into our pilot duty day, but regardless, there is still the same roster of tasks to be accomplished–and they don’t care how tired you are, they must be accomplished correctly.

Getting a good look at the current radar sweep and things look ugly. The cells have broken up and are scattered like mercury all over the place. The DFW airport arrival information is automated: weather, winds, runway–all printed out from the on-board data link printer. The DFW info says landing south–so you set up frequencies, courses and descent altitudes in both sides of the Flight Management System, as well as both pilot panels. While he flies, you brief the approach.

Have to swing wide around storms–request a descent to get below scud blow-off you can’t see on radar, but which you detect because it’s blocking the pattern of ground lights you know should be Denton. As soon as we begin descent, the master caution light glares in front of your face, along with a pressurization clue. A quick glance at the pressurization control panel above the F/Os head shows we’re holding cabin pressure fine, it’s just that we never reached the programmed cruise altitude and the computer is confused.

“Off schedule descent,” you say, punching off the warning light. Reset the cruise altitude to 5,000, which is lower than where you are, to let the computer recalculate and catch up.

“Radar vectors to 35 Center,” says the air traffic controller. Dammit–we set everything up for a south landing per the DFW info.

“ATIS says DFW landing south,” you say, making sure there’s absolutely none of the annoyance you feel in your voice.

Pause, wherein you can imagine the controller saying to someone the ATIS is wrong. “I’ll check on that, but plan north.

Redo the courses, rebrief for the F/O, reinsert the proper approach in the FMS and extend the centerline for intercept. Complete the checklist down to configuration, validate the Heads Up Display Data. Staring at the lights of The Ballpark in Arlington miles south, doing the math on descent rates versus final turn altitude based on a left turn thereabouts. Looking good.

A loud snap as the autothrottles kick off. “I’ve got them back on,” you say, reaching up to reinstate the system. F/O nods, concentrating on flying.

Now ask yourself why they tripped off. No failures annunciated–they wouldn’t have reinstated with an internal failure. And it’s not that choppy. Has to have been a power interruption. Glance up–sure enough, there it is.

The left generator bus source is gone. Is it the generator or the bus that’s failed? Regardless, we’re flying with only one electrical source–the right generator. Not good.

First instinct is to start the Auxiliary Power Unit (APU), a small jet engine in the tail that can provide electrical power and pressurization air–but wait.

If the fault is in the left electrical bus, adding the APU generator could either cause a fire, or take down the APU generator. Be patient.

Although you know the right generator has assumed the power load–so the bus must be okay–why take chances?

“We’ve lost the left generator,” you say, reaching for the Quick Response Handbook. “I’ll take care of it. “F/O nods.

The procedure confirms what you deduced. Within a couple minutes, you have the APU running and power restored. Follow the QRH procedure exactly; better to have two electrical sources–if you’re down to one, if it fails, it’s going to get dark and ugly: flying with limited instruments and systems on 30 minutes of battery back up. In the weather, at night. We can do it–but would rather not.

Left base turn from an angling downwind. Mike’s doing a good job–he sees the bad angle and is slowing and calls for dirtying up with flaps and gear. The runway’s coming into view on my side. Good altitude and speed; the intercept of glideslope and course will be fine.

Tower calls the winds “130 at 18.”

Dammit. The limit is 15. With the 50 degree offset, we’re close. Legal, but you don’t like flirting with limits. Even on a long runway.

“Continue,” you say to Mike’s inquiring look–he’s done the math too. But you’re just about decided to abandon the approach. But no need to rush anything. Rushing is never good.

“I’ll rebug you to 40” you say, changing configuration as required by the tailwind, “and brakes 3.” He nods.

At a thousand feet, it’s clear that the tailwind is unstable and variable–you can tell from our ground speed versus the airspeed.

No good. “Let ‘s take it around,” you say. He nods, adds power–the descent stops.

“Here comes flaps 15,” you recite the litany for him,”positive rate, gear coming up. Missed approach altitude set.”

“American 245 is on the go,” you tell the tower.

“Fly runway heading, maintain two thousand,” says the tower.

Fine; nearly there–reset the throttles from N1 to speed, reset both FMC from climb to capture. Reset both course windows and MDA–because we’re going to land south. Reprogram the FMS for the 17s.

“I’m going to teardrop you out to the east, then bring you around for a final to the south,” says the controller. “Can you do that?”

Eyeballing the radar: nastiness to the northeast, but there’s some room.

“Give us five miles,” you answer. No need to rush–make this correct, hit every step. F/O nods. “Then turn us back in.”

Slowing, getting dirty. Left sweeping turn.

“Do you see the runway?” asks tower. You do–you give a thumbs up to Mike. He nods.

“Affirmative,” you answer.

“Cleared visual approach, cleared to land, 17 Right.”

Confirm the Right runway freqs, MDA and courses set. “I’ll bug you back up to 30,” you say, changing configuration again: don’t need a whole lot of drag without the tailwind and with a possible wind shear. Mike nods.

Glideslope is rough. You’re on a hair trigger to go around again–there’s plenty of fuel to hold or go north to Oklahoma City or south to Austin. Be alert, be patient.

Increasing wind; good sign–but it has to stay within controllable limits. Mike’s doing a fine job wrestling the jet onto glidepath. The Boeing is a steady machine–an MD80 would be a bucking bronco in this.

Below 500 feet–you’re call: it’s stable enough, we’re good. If Mike wants to go-around, we sure will, but we’re good.

Over the threshhold, Mike puts it down; speedbrakes deploy, he yanks in full reverse, the jet slows.

“Nice job,” you say, taking over as we slow to 80 knots.

After landing checklists, taxi in. Careful, do the job right all the way to the chocks. Engine shutdown.

Passengers deplaning, our shutdown checklists complete. You’re writing up the left generator in the maintenance logbook, a mechanic is already on the jetbridge waiting.

“You can take off, Mike,” you say, “I’ll finish up here.” Meaning you’ll do the final “after all passengers have deplaned” checklist items to power down the aircraft. That’s a courtesy you do–you’re the captain, you leave last. He did a great job tonight–respect that.

We fist bump, he leaves.

You finish up: packs off, recirc fans off, cockpit power off. Grab your bags. Slip out of the gate area past the 160 passengers who have no idea what transpired between Wichita Falls and their safe landing a few minutes ago. Nor should they–that’s what they pay you for.

Fresh air feels good, outside waiting for the employee bus to the parking lot. Nearly 1am, got to get home and get some rest–flying again tomorrow.

Summer Storms, Airline Flight, and YOU as Captain.

Posted in air travel, airline cartoon, airline delays, airliner, airlines, airport, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, flight delays, jet, jet flight, passenger, pilot, weather with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 22, 2011 by Chris Manno

Well that’s going to be trouble, your air sense tells you as you wing westbound.

Because you have to turn around and come back once you reach LAX–and this stuff, you can feel it: it’s growing. In a few hours, it will stand between you and “homeplate”–DFW for you–and it will be your job to thread the needle between, above and around the towering wall of what will be full-blown thunderheads by the time you return.

But the weather-guessers say the storms will stay south and west of the Jethroplex, right?

Yeah, my ass. Sorry–been fooled before. Now, we deal with gut feel and radar. Forecasts? Farther out than a couple hours–pretty well useless. Keep flying.

LAX, first stop: got to have a cup of the strong Brioce Bakery coffee. Kind of crave it flying to LAX. Westbound passengers happily herding off; First Officer about his business on the ramp, catering, cleaners. You?

Stout cup of Brioce and radar, your best friend. Which helps you set up your next best friend: jet fuel.

But here’s where your air sense–and 17,000 flight hours–comes in: the storms forming up and marching west to east aren’t really a front passage. Rather, they’re a boundary collision that the cold front is barely strong enough to move. Those storms will stagnate wherever they form–my best guess–so there’s not going to be a quick close-then-open, 40-50 minutes of holding.

Hedge your bets: approach from the northwest in fact, route north over Albuquerque and see if you can beat the frontal passage, or be positioned to slip in immediately after. Plus, from behind the squall, all of your divert options will have a clear path. So in this case, northern route, an hour of holding fuel, see how it plays out.

The first round of bad news comes up on the data link printer in Arizona: “0300 DFW tempo 1ovc tstm lgtctcctg 34012g25 29.77 prsfr.”

Duh: “airport expecting one hundred overcast around 10pm in thunderstorms lightning cloud to cloud, cloud to ground; winds from the north gusting to 25, surface pressure falling rapidly.”

Trouble in front of the front. Cross the Rio Grunge eastbound, nice tailwind rocketing the aluminum tube across the ground at 500+ miles per hour.

My F/O is smart, sharp, quick. A good asset in forming a plan, then a backup, then another. I like options. I choose my words carefully: “Hey, you want any coffee? I’m buying?”

I like the way Angela makes coffee, the old-fashioned DC-10 technique: a splash of club soda on the bottom of the pot before brewing–eases the acidity, gives a smooth flavor. Hell, no rush here–I hate redoing stuff. The radar picture won’t be too well defined until about 300 miles out, even better at 160. Have a cup of Boeing brew and relax.

Okay, now we’ve got something to work with. Did I mention how much I love the 737-800 radar? It has its own GPS system, always plotting where it is–and it knows the terrain everywhere it finds itself and miracle: it screens out ground clutter–and does its own tilt for each range. What you see is what’s there–how cool and smart is that?

This picture is looking southeast. The blob over HIKAY is the nasty storm cell headed for the airport. As I figured, we’ll either beat it, or the airport will close–and it did as we approached 100 miles out. We expected that.

The good news is that we’re assigned a holding pattern over Wichita Falls. Sheppard has a couple of long runways and jet fuel available. Once we’re established in holding at 33,000 feet–a good altitude for fuel economy–I call the Sheppard tower on another radio: how late are you open tonight? How late is the fueler open?

Eleven o’clock for the tower, all night for the fueler. It’s just after 10pm. We’ve got fuel for 40, maybe 50 minutes of holding, then we need about 4,000 pounds to fly north to Oklahoma City.

But we’re right on top of Wichita falls/Sheppard. I can see it–perfect weather. No additional fuel for the divert–we just spiral down.F/O concurs. We start setting up navaids, approaches.

Our holding racetrack--right over an excellent divert spot.

DFW approach updates the airport re-opening projection: midnight.

The mass exodus begins from various holding stacks because no one has that much loiter fuel. Most on the north side are heading for Oklahoma City.  “Put Wichita Falls on request,” I tell the F/O, as we continue all divert prep and logistics with our dispatcher in Fort Worth.

We exit the holding stack northbound with a descent clearance, all of the divert notifications and nav system reprogramming done, approach briefed–we’re way ahead. The winking lights of two jets above us in the pattern suggest what I’d be thinking if I were them: “Smart bastards–first into Sheppard, first for fuel, first out.”


Sheppard Approach: “Plan runway 33 center.”

Me: “Unable.” The center runway is 150 feet wide; our wingspan is around 130. The left runway is 300 feet wide–but the Air Force is using it for night traffic patterns in my ex-girlfriend:

Tough darts, wingnuts: when it was me in the Air Force flying the White Rocket, I’d have said tell the civilians to get lost–we’re busy here. Now, with 160 passengers and a crew of 7 on board, I think differently.

I’m doing the math, checking the descent rate and speed and distance–it’s all coming together nicely, “in the slot” as we say. Over the threshhold, follow the HUD cues projected before me on the glass; little narrow-gauge skid marks from smaller jets slide under the nose, then touchdown.

Clear the runway, set the brakes for a minute–whip out my cell phone and call the fueler, “Landmark Aviation.”

“How much fuel do you need,” asks a friendly voice. We have 5,800 pounds on board, I’d wag 3,000-4,000 to get to DFW, 3,000-4,000 more for delays. Plus some more thousands for peace of mind and the unexpected, two factors that usually don’t work well together.

“We need 12,000.”

“No problem, taxi on down.”

Tight maneuvering on narrow taxiways and a small transient ramp, but slowly, carefully, watching the wingtips–we park. I see the lights of two other airliners approaching from the south. Hah! The fuel truck is already here.

First Officer is outside, doing the exterior inspection. I’m on the phone with dispatch for a clearance plan, on the radio with tower for a proposed launch window, then with DFW approach for an expected route, then the phone again for current DFW weather.

My fuel guess is pretty good: dispatch wants us to have 15,000 pounds of fuel–we have 17,500. I love jet fuel.

Me signing for six tons of jet fuel.

Behind us, a Super-80 waits, an Airbus waiting behind him. I chat with the MD-80 captain in the quaint Wichita Falls terminal–he needs to have flight plan faxed to him; we printed ours on our on-board data link printer. I considered for a moment suggesting the dispatch send his to our jet, but I’m not even sure that’s possible. And we’re ready to blast off.

Supposedly, the terminal folks are on their way back and they’ll fire up the FAX machine for him and his 140 passengers. Too bad you ain’t on the Boeing, I thought but didn’t say.

Carefully, point by point, we check our route, then our performance data. Never mind that it’s nearly midnight, 11 hours into our workday–every single detail will be checked. I will see and he will crosscheck every number put into the performance system.

We start engines, a ground man pulls the chocks and salutes: clear to go.

I have a better idea. We sit with brakes parked and accomplish all pre-takeoff checklists so that I don’t have divided attention taxiing out over the mini-sized taxiways.

Tower clears us for take-off. One last check of numbers–the runway, the rotate speed, the weight, the power setting, all check out. Stand up the throttles, all exterior lights on, punch the take-off power button on the throttles and she leaps forward with a growl.

Off the nose, black sky, more storms; cloud to cloud and cloud to ground lightning weaving a brilliant latticework to the south, where we’re going. Dead ahead, more spot decisions, plans, backups, numbers, radar and ultimately, maybe a cup of coffee to go for the drive home once we navigate the weather gauntlet.

But nothing’s set in stone; we’ll just see what’s what when we get to DFW. The coffee and DFW will just have to wait, but I’m patient, and careful. All in good time–despite all pressures to the contrary, all passenger and crew urgency, fatigue; I tune it all out. Every step carefully, thoughtfully–that’s what summer flying is all about.

Quite a light show in the DFW terminal area, and the hurdles spring up one by one, then in droves. Weird, but I kind of like the challenge. But that’s another story.

The “Whys” of Airline “Ground Stops” For Passengers

Posted in air travel, airline delays, airliner, airlines, airport, flight crew, flight delays, jet flight, passenger, pilot, travel, travel tips, weather with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 23, 2011 by Chris Manno

For many passengers, flying is an unfamiliar, sometimes confusing experience made all the more so by the lack of understanding of inconveniences like ground delays.

Often it seems such take-off delays are arbitrary (the sky is clear and blue; let’s go!) and unfounded–but if you understood the reasons behind departure delays, you could at least keep your blood pressure low and your patience intact.

The most common–and often dreaded–delay term you might hear regarding your take-off is “Ground Stop,”  which means you are not being allowed to take-off or more succinctly, your flight is stopped on the ground at your departure airport.


Multiple reasons. The most common is that the destination weather is such that the the number of inbound aircraft the Air Traffic Control can sequence is restricted or reduced.

Why? Well, the most common problem is a low ceiling and visibility that requires expanded spacing between aircraft.

Why more spacing? Because if we as pilots can separate ourselves from other aircraft visually on an approach and landing, we need only five miles of separation. If we’re flying in reduced visibility, that separation requirement at least doubles to ten miles. That cuts down the number of arrivals possible per hour.

But it could also be a beautifully clear day and capacity could be limited by winds. If the wind velocity or even gusts approaches the crosswind limitation of most aircraft–normally around 30 knots–then some runways may be unusable.

Why? This happens at DFW now and then because of the seven runways, five are oriented north-south, two are northwest to southeast. Doing the math, two runways rather than seven handling arrivals will of course mean delays.

The Ground Stop is a temporary way to shut off the flow of inbound aircraft until such time as either the limiting condition dissipates at the destination field–and that could be the low ceilings and visibility, winds or a thunderstorm. The last problem–a storm–can also cause a ground stop for your destination even after it passes.

Why? Sometimes it becomes a question of real estate: if a storm at your destination has stopped their outbound aircraft from taking off, there often is simply no room to taxi and park a slew of inbound aircraft. This is particularly true at small, congested airports like LaGuardia and Washington Reagan, but even large airports like DFW can become gridlocked as well.

And if the condition slowing things down is icing, there really is no point in allowing too many aircraft in.

Why? Because once an aircraft is de-iced, a take-off must be accomplished promptly or the deicing fluid loses its effectiveness and the plane needs to be de-iced over again.

What about when you’re told there’s an “outbound Ground Stop” for your airport? Rare, but it happens.

Why? From a pilot standpoint, the airport isn’t exactly “closed.” But the problem becomes the departure corridor: if the radar controllers can’t find a clear path for departing aircraft, they simply don’t allow any departures. But sometimes when your airport’s weather is fine, the departures from another nearby airport might cause a temporary shutdown of your airport’s departures.

Airways crammed into the east and northeast.

Why? Well, as in the case of JFK, Newark, and LaGuardia, or Baltimore, Washington, and Dulles, or Chicago O’Hare and Midway, DFW and Love Field, or San Francisco International and Oakland and San Jose, and LAX and any of the dozens of airports there–if one field has bad weather, particularly thunderstorms, their inbound and outbound aircraft have to maneuver off of the normal routing in order to avoid thunderstorms. Air Traffic Control will wisely limit the number of new aircraft added to the mix.

On-board radar display: no take-off clear path.

Really, a Ground Stop makes sense when you think about it. Because the limiting condition at your destination would still exist whether you take-off or hold on the ground. So the problem with allowing the take-off even though the landing field is restricted is that you end up with a larger risk of delay.

Why? Because if the delay inbound is absorbed in the air, that means holding. If holding time is projected to be over a half hour or maybe even forty-five minutes, the end result will be a diversion.

Why? Well, because there’s only so much fuel we can carry en route since every aircraft has a maximum landing weight. If you add an extra hour’s worth of fuel–about 10,000 pounds on my jet–but then it turns out that you don’t need it to hold enroute, you could easily be too heavy to land. Guess what happens then: you will get to hold until you burn off the excess fuel, which is a tremendous waste and will guarantee that some connecting passengers’ next flight will depart without them.

Plus, in my pilot mind, after about forty minutes of holding, my air sense tells me it’s time to find a better place to land. It’s simply not prudent from a pilot standpoint to arrive at an alternate without extra fuel for contingencies there. And if we do have to divert, depending on how long my crew and our duty day has been, the FAA may mandate that we’re done flying for the day–which means you are too, wherever we are.

But all of that can be avoided by holding on the ground at our departure airport, burning no fuel. As frustrating as that may seem, the alternative is actually worse and really, taking-off without a good probability of being able to land at your intended destination doesn’t really sound like a good idea, does it?

I have to say, some crewmembers don’t even understand all of the Ground Stop factors I just explained and certainly, most passengers don’t either.

But the wise passengers like you who understand this “big picture” explanation of the dreaded Ground Stop can just take a deep breath, nod wisely and be confident that they’re on the optimum route to their destination.

Vuelo Loco: Tennyson, Dead Fish and Mexico City.

Posted in air travel, airliner, airlines, airport, faith, fart, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, food, jet, lavatory, layover, life, pilot with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 9, 2011 by Chris Manno

Listen, I’m a fan of Mexico. Really, I am.

What’s not to like about Mexico City? Always looked forward to those downtown layovers–it was part of my job–but they’re scary dangerous. Probably not for the reason you think though.

I mean, sure, there’s plenty of drug violence. And yes, I did have to dodge through four lanes of traffic to evade a scroungy-looking cop trying to shake me down once, but he was either too lazy or too smart to chase me through the insane downtown traffic.

And yes, plenty of people with questionable intent in a city of 20 million, where you could simply disappear, kind of like the city itself  is doing, slowly sinking into its own aquifer. And okay, maybe I did roll the dice in a sense, as an instructor-evaluator taking pilots down to Mexico City every month, showing them the safe way to fly in and out of the mountain bowl.

Well, it’s not even really this “thread-the-needle-through-mountains” approach and usually, through thunderstorm alley that was like playing craps weekly. And it’s not really that I minded the always slick (memo to Mexico City Airport: the rest of the world cleans the reverted rubber off of their runways every year or two, so get a clue) runway with the puddle in the middle that you hit doing about 150 and exit two thousand feet later at about 149.

More, actually, was requiring the qualifying pilot have a beverage and a Cuban at an outdoor cafe on the traffic circle outside the Presidente Hotel. The bar–Karishma–is where a whole crew got mugged one night. They noticed that suddenly the place was empty save the two airline crews enjoying tapas and the generously poured (“Tell me when to stop pouring, Senor”) refreshments there. Then suddenly, watches, rings, wallets–buh-BYE, as we like to say.

So to be on the “safe” side, we sat outside on the traffic circle–maybe more witnesses?–and since it was my idea, I made sure my back was to the building, so the new guy got to sit with his back to the insane traffic, puffing a Cuban (relaxing–but mandatory) and enjoying a refreshment, maybe getting a shoeshine from the roving vendors who’d magically appear, ignoring the demolition derby mere feet away.

Hey, might as well get the full flavor: massive city (did I mention 20 MILLION people?), exotic neighborhoods of jumbled steel and glass elbowing in between with castellated stone architecture, snarled in the clogged highways like the arteries of a fat man. You watch the traffic and muse over your beverage, how the hell do they do this five way intersection without a traffic light?

And then on the side streets of The Polanco, maybe a quieter sidewalk cafe where I actually did much of my doctoral exam study: outside, books piled, good coffee, usually a thunderstorm in the afternoon that made me glad I wasn’t trying to fly a jet in or out at that moment. Out of nowhere, it seemed, in the afternoon towering big-shouldered thunderheads would roll through the mountain pass with raggedy sheets of torrential rain and thunder that echoed through canyons of concrete and steel, the reverberations so fitting to Tennyson’s “Ulysses” marching across the page before me toward the inexorable doom awaiting us all.

Harder to relax at dinner, though, when you were concentrating on the guard dog staring at your plate and whatever you were having for dinner. The armed guard restraining the dog had his eye on you and the plate alternately, and you had to wonder if either or both of them might figure that the dinner and your wallet might tip the scale in favor of mutiny. It was a stand-off in Mexico: the guard and dog making sure banditos didn’t mug you while you ate–but then the silently menacing pair themselves having to resist the hunger and temptation to rebid the transaction in more favorable terms.

And it’s not even the “one-eye-open” sleep in the airport high rise hotel with the un-level floors from the tipped buildings patiently waiting to tremble and topple in the next big quake they know is coming soon.

You wake up the next morning with the feeling of relief: ahh, The Big One they’ve been expecting didn’t happen while you slept, crushing you in tons of rubble that will take about ten years–if ever–to remove.

No, I’m talking about this:

That’ll eat you alive. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I was heading down to Mexico City for the umpteenth time and my favorite cousin was there with her husband who worked for the U.S. Department of State. “Hey, want to meet for dinner?”

Okay, I already know why not–I’ve been in the airline crew biz a looooong time: relatives don’t get it, you’re not on vacation; time does matter, sleep too.

“Sure, why not?” Because I’m an idiot–and here’s why. We’re going out for Mexican, traditional, right? I mean, we’re in Mexico-friggin-City, right? Enchiladas? Queso? Fajitas?


We’re doing Mexican-Asian fusion, which means I’m eating raw fish in Mexico: salmon carpaccio, pictured above. Delicious. Amazing! Immodium, amen. That didn’t take long.

The fever lasted about a week. The shower nozzle effect (any chance of scheduling a colonoscopy? I’m prepped, just for the hell of it) lasted a couple weeks. Thanks cuz.

Forget banditos. Who cares about high altitude aircraft performance, up-sloping mountainous terrain and treacherous rolling thunderstorms. The real danger’s on the plate.

Yes, I love Mexico City. Just don’t go there unarmed, okay?

Silver Wings Then other Things: Part 4.

Posted in air travel, airliner, airlines, airport, flight attendant, flight crew, jet, jet flight, passenger, pilot, travel, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 15, 2011 by Chris Manno

This is the final installment of a 4 part series putting you in the captain’s seat of an airliner.

Want to start at the beginning? Click here.



It’s the top of descent. You just kind of get the feel, just know we’re getting to that point, if you’ve been engaged in the flight, where the natural rhythm of things is to start descent.

Used to have different cues that signaled the top of descent point before we had the precision of dual Inertial and multiple GPS systems tied to multiple flight guidance computers figuring descent rates and distances down to a gnat’s ass. One that was nearly infallible:

No, they didn’t call up front and suggest descent. They went into the First Class lav near the cockpit and unleashed a cloud of hairspray and fu-fu to get ready to look great in the terminal between flights. They always somehow just knew it was about time to touch up the war paint and big hair–which was our clue up front that “hey, must be time to start down.”


"Uh, Center, we're ready for descent."

The descent is fairly standard, an exercise in Euclidian geometry (want more details? click here) that takes into account altitude, distance, speed and fuel flow. But the approach and landing planning started before take-off.

Driving in to the airport, I have in mind the basics of the destination airport (or airports, on most days). At this point in my flying career, there are few airports in our domestic route system that I haven’t already landed a jet on, so I go back over what I know: airport altitude, terrain, runway length, runway surface approach types, traffic conflicts and a few other details.

I like to use Mexico City as an extreme example, because it shows that there’s really no “one size fits all” with those factors above: MEX has a 12,000 runway, but the airport elevation is 7,300 feet. So despite the long runway length,  aircraft performance and maneuverability are reduced by the high pressure altitude–not a good thing when flying slow and dirty as you must to land–the higher true airspeeds at altitude have you touching down with a hell of a ground speed, making this long runway a challenge for stopping nonetheless.

And that’s on a runway that is neither crowned nor grooved, which means any rain will likely pool and stand, screwing your brake effectiveness, and the mix of moisture and reverted rubber, which you know from experience seldom gets cleaned off south of the border, will make stopping a real challenge.

Meanwhile, Santa Ana “Orange County” Airport is at sea level, with a crowned and grooved runway–but it’s only 5,700 feet long. As a comparison, the take-off runway at DFW is 13,000 feet long. Stopping the jet at Orange County is as dicey as it is at Mexico City.

Most airports fall somewhere in between, but runway length and airport pressure altitude aren’t the only factors to consider. The wild cards are always the weather and the runway surface condition: all 13,000 feet at DFW are about as useful as the 5,700 at SNA if the runway is slick from rain, sleet, snow, or ice. There’s no free ride on landing.

Plus, add this, would-be Captain: you don’t know what you don’t know.

There are those who think because a runway is long, clean and dry that stopping can or should be a leisurely affair: some copilots have actually pre-briefed “I’m going to use minimum braking or reverse and let it roll.”

The hell you say.

No matter what runway you land on, there is a certain landing distance required due to the kinetic energy the brakes must absorb to stop the tons of metal, fuel, bones and blood still thundering forward at flying speed. Whether that distance is 3,000 feet or 8,000 feet, it makes the most sense to take care of the kinetic energy right away.  Once it’s absorbed and the jet decelerated, you can do whatever you want with the runway remaining.

Remember the basic lesson of flight, and the number one item listed as useless to a pilot:

“Runway behind you!” It’s useless, wasted, history, toast. If you’re still rolling without braking properly, you’re toast if anything goes wrong after touchdown.

And there ain’t no ‘splaining it to the FAA after you don’t stop on the runway.

Same goes for the knuckleheads who float a thousand feet or so down the runway fishing for a smooth landing: heretics!

Here is what God has told us about landings:

No floating, easing it down. On speed–neither too fast (more kinetic energy) nor too slow (high nose angle, possible tail strike) and within the zone Moses above is stressing–even though aircraft were for him still a couple thousand years down the road.

Look, can we speak frankly as pilots here? Who the heck cares what the passengers say as they deplane? They have no idea what a good landing is and even if they did, from where they’re sitting, they really have no way to tell if you’re on speed and at the right point. I’ve seen them get off saying, “Good landing” when I know the actual landing was too far down the runway and not on speed.

Forget about them and their ignorance–you have a job to do: on speed, at the correct touchdown point and sometimes, firmly: if the runway is wet, we don’t flirt with hydroplaning. I don’t give a damn if to the passengers it feels like everyone in China just jumped off a chair–we plant it, stop it and taxi to the gate.

Okay, time out: are you easily bored? If so, skip down to below the math (I really hate math too). If not, read on.

Engineering data shows that hydroplaning is most likely at the speed that is 9 times the square root of the tire pressure. Our main tires are at around 205 PSI. So, 9 x 14.32 = 128.88 knots as the primary hydroplane zone.

So the smart money gets the plane slowed below that speed as soon as practicable, because whatever runway there is behind you is no help to you, and whatever runway there is ahead may have an added hydroplaning factor you could have avoided: a puddle, a slick of reverted rubber; whatever: stop now, play smooth pilot later.

That formula works for your car, too: 9 x 6 = 54 mph as your primary liability to hydroplaning–and like in a jet, don’t give up: once you get through that speed zone via smooth deceleration, you will get control back. Too many people on the highway and on the runway think that once hydroplaning starts–that’s it. Stay with it, you will slow and regain control. And that is today’s

Okay, we’re back. So God gave Moses this to help him:

Autobrakes: the greatest advancement in commercial aircraft since flight attendants gave up on big hair (breathe easy on top-of-descent). The “RTO” setting is for “Rejected Take Off,” or abort. We’ve talked about that recently. You don’t subscribe? That’s a shame.

Then the 1,2 and 3 settings provide graduated brake application depending on stopping distance. Then there’s “MAX,” which is an acronym for “Holy Shit.” I use “Holy Shit” on the ultra short runway, or the ultra-long like Toronto in a blizzard when the  tower says, “Cleared to land, you’re the first, it’s mostly plowed, let us know how the braking is.” Remember, there’s no “one size fits all.”

At any point, you can take over braking manually simply by pressing on the rudder pedals. But especially if you’re using differential rudder, it’s best to leave them on as they’re not prone to apply asymmetric braking as would be likely if you were pushing one rudder pedal more than the other for crosswind crab control. I usually override the autobrakes slowing through 100 knots as we near runway high-speed turn-off speed (80 knots). And if you use  the “Holy Shit” setting, you’ll need to add power to taxi off the runway. That’s a good thing.

Now, you’re fifteen miles out, maybe 5,000 feet high (okay, more math: a three degree glide slope allows a civilized descent rate of 700 to 1,000 feet per minute depending on the ground speed, so three times the altitude is a good distance to begin descent). Slow to below 200 so you can “throw all the shit out,” as one of my SWA pilot buddies says, referring to the gear and flaps. The flaps have a bunch of limiting speeds, and 190 is below most of ’em. Makes it simple.

If you’re the lucky guy in the left seat of a 737-800, you don’t even need to look inside from this point on, except to verify gear and flap positions before landing.

Now it’s a matter of guiding the jet down the glide path, touching down in the correct touchdown zone, then braking smartly and efficiently. Got it?

Enough blabber–want to watch it all come together?

This video was passed to me by a friend of mine a few years ago. He was killed last Spring in an ATV accident, but his memory lives on with those who knew him in the Air Force and afterward. The video was not shot from the aircraft type that I fly, but it’s an airport I’m very familiar with, and it has many of the complications we just talked about. A tip on the video: if an ad pops up, just click on the “x” in the right corner to get rid of it. And if you click on the triangle above and just right of the “360p,” you can choose a higher video quality.

Now, take all of the factors we’ve just gone over into consideration, then turn the approach and landing into a symphony. Please remain seated till the aircraft comes to a complete stop, and thanks for flying with us today.

Coming Soon:

What do the sixth graders of Miss Giulia’s class in Ottawa want to know about flying?

Cool stuff! Stay tuned . . .

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