In the wake of several recent airliner losses, talk in the media once again turns to the futuristic concept of remotely piloted passenger jets.
A very bad idea, as I explain on Mashable.com. Just click here to read, or use the link below.
“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.
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 Orion Nebula contains a very young open cluster, known as the Trapezium due to the asterism of its primary four stars. Two of these can be resolved into their component binary systems on nights with good seeing, giving a total of six stars.
The basic framework for the moving target that is flight comprises an architecture of anchors and change: weights dictate speeds which prescribe duration and altitude. The wooden stake in the ground, sure as the tenuous GPS alignment reluctantly tolerating the gusty wind bucking the 40 foot tall rudder assembly, will be ancient history as soon as we move. But to know where we’re going, we have to know where we started from.
The stars of the Trapezium, along with many other stars, are still in their early years. The Trapezium may be a component of the much larger Orion Nebula Cluster, an association of about 2,000 stars within a diameter of 20 light years. Two million years ago this cluster may have been the home of the runaway stars AE Aurigae, 53 Arietis, and Mu Columbae, which are currently moving away from the nebula at velocities greater than 100 km/s.
And drawn as moths to the flame, pairs and singles, Noah’s children march aboard, halfway to somewhere, their presence now a light reflected forward, as meaningless in the here-and-now as the two-by-two was in the pouring rain, boarding the ark: it’s all about the retelling later.
A nebula is an interstellar cloud in outer space that is made up of dust, hydrogen and helium gas, and plasma. It is formed when portions of the interstellar medium collapse and clump together due to the gravitational attraction of the particles that comprise them. The gravitational forces between particles is directly proportional to the their masses, remember?
“Now” is a moving target, mortgaged by “then,” which in the preflight cockpit is more about “there:” the air nautical miles divided by pounds of fuel burned per each. The symphony of electrons conjures an opus of transformation: if everyone plays his part, there will be a smooth harmony of fire, speed and distance, underscored by dollars transferred and spent, buoying steel and fuel, blood and bone, suspended across the night sky like the fiery tail of a comet from here to there.
When a star burns through the last of its fuel, it may find itself collapsing. For smaller stars, up to about three times the sun’s mass, the new core will be a neutron star or a white dwarf. But when a larger star collapses, it continues to fall in on itself to create a stellar black hole.
It’s always the “after” from which meaning is made. For the ark, that’s arrival. For the pilots, that’s enroute, the record inscribed across the night sky, 500 degree exhaust gas boiling away at -55 C ice crystaline air, backlit by the moonlight as a spider web across the star-flung dome. Keep the fires burning.
Black holes formed by the collapse of individual stars are (relatively) small, but incredibly dense. Such an object packs three times or more the mass of the sun into a city-sized range. This leads to a crazy amount of gravitational force pulling on objects around it. Black holes consume the dust and gas from the galaxy around them, growing in size.
And for those left behind, like those yet ahead, the unseen passage is one of either anticipation or regret, of bidding welcome or goodbye, of time spent or lost. You can’t not feel the diminishing weight of both, lighter the farther and higher you go. No hands hold you, just wings and lift, time and tide, fire and ice in balance. Passage.
Orion’s light is either a promise given or a wish fulfilled, depending on where you see it and when. At light speed, the trapezoid assigned to the mythology, the murky nebulae burning within, left home in the time of Alexander the Great, overtaking you at 41,000 feet a couple millennium later. Either way it’s a lie–a now from then, seen light years away; then as if now.
Just like your flight: you’ve crammed a million footsteps into the counting of minutes rather than lifetimes, footless, seven miles high, an ark sailing on a rolling tide of time and place, borne of fire, trust, hope, and light.
For those in the back, the metal ark is but conveyance. For you, more an arc inscribed across the night, more than passage but less than permanence. Like the silent, obedient constellation, the gas blue light won’t matter until it’s examined in retrospect. You live in the passage, grant the flight its own universal time and space, its million shards of where and when and ultimately, why. But it’s never about “there,” for you. Only leaving there, and flight across darkness: night, the shadow of life, then home, the nexus oF light.
Back in the day, you’d slide that DC-10 electric seat forward in the copilot’s position and hunker down for the long haul: 9 hours from DFW to Paris on a good day with favorable winds. But more than flight time or miles or fuel flow and track routing, pacing was the order of the day: you’re going to be sitting here all night–don’t be in any rush to do anything.
That was over twenty years ago–closer to twenty-five. And the captains in those days had at least that many years with the airline in order to have advanced seniority-wise into the widebody left seat ranks, rarified air in any airline. So we’re talking what–a half century into the past, into the flight memories and aviation lore to be shared in the cold, dark, midnight sky over Greenland and the Atlantic?
Always liked flying with Bob C., now deceased, but who in those long hours at altitude would relate memories of flying wing for Iven Kincheloe over the Yalu River during the Korean War. Barely hanging onto his wing, trying not to get killed . . . he was a madman . . .
But tonight’s story hour would come from a different source. Dick B. had flown Super Connies for TWA before quiting to take a job with my airline when I was still in pre-school. “A better deal,” he’d always say, “although flying plumber on the Connie was a heck of an education.”
Plumber. Or, in more correct parlance, flight engineer. Back in the fifties, he’d say, the airline biz was a whole ‘nother animal. Of course, we all still say that: when were you hired? Ninety-one? Well, all through the eighties this airline was a blast . . .
Still, even with a grain of salt or two, the Kinchloe or Connie stories were a welcome relief from the doldrums of midnight cruise across the pond.
Tonight Dick was holding forth about the early Connie days, back when the Cold War was heating up; the days when a lot of guys like Bob were just out of the Air Force after the post-Korean War draw down. Guys like Dick had never served, so he’s been able to spend his early years on the engineer’s panel instead of hanging onto Iven Kinchloe’s wing for dear life.
Those were the days of Kruschev bellowing about the demise of democracy, and Sputnik, and the nuclear standoff. In the midst of it all, both countries at least made a show of diplomacy. That’s where Dick came in.
Besides the well-known “red phone” from the Kremlin to the White House, other lesser gestures intended to defuse the Cold War took place as well.
Aeroflot would be allowed one flight a day into “Idlewilde Field”–later renamed Kennedy International–in New York City, and one U.S. carrier would be granted a landing slot in Moscow. A small but meaningful attempt at detente. The U.S. flag carrier granted this Moscow route was, of course, TWA; and the aircraft making the maiden flight was the Super Constellation. On board was one very young, excited flight engineer named Dick.
It was common knowledge that the Aeroflot aircraft would be packed to the gills with spying equipment like cameras and other electronic data gathering devices. Maybe that’s why Kennedy was chosen as the landing base by the U.S. State Department: nothing to overfly, no way to take spy photos out there in the Long Island hinterlands.
But in the spy vs. spy paranoia of the Cold War, the Connie crew just knew they’d be spied on once they landed in Russia. So, Dick told us, when the crew reached their layover hotel in Moscow, they made a pact: they’d all search their rooms for the listening devices and spying equipment they knew had to be there. Dick tore apart his room and found nothing–but in short order, his phone rang: the lead flight attendant had found a mysterious metal canister under her bed. Aha. Be right down with my tools.
The good flight engineer grabbed his tool bag and hustled to the flight attendant’s room, already packed with the captain and the rest of the crew, with the bed shoved aside, mysterious, gleaming canister in the center of the floor.
Carefully, using a crescent wrench adjusted for the odd caliber of the nuts on the bolts ringing the canisters, the engineer removed each bolt carefully. Suspense built with the last bolt . . . deep breath, lift the canister . . .
But within minutes, there was an angry voice at the door, fists pounding, and footsteps rushing down the hall and towards the room. The crew prepared for the worst.
Instead, it was the maitre d, enraged, plus the hotel manager. As it turned out, the flight attendant’s room was above the main dining room. Instead of disabling a sinister spy device, the crew had unwittingly removed the anchor plate for the chandelier in the dining room.
Oops. maybe Kruschev was right–maybe Americans were the real crazies, despite the world famous pictures of him pounding the podium with his own shoe at a televised news conference. And my question, though I didn’t ask, is whether the red phone on Eisenhower’s desk rang shortly afterward, with a demand for payment for one smashed chandelier and maybe a buffet line.
But those days, and those pilots, are now long gone. Now, in the left seat, it’s pilots like me remembering them, but also our own early days with the airline and the adventures that span thousands of air miles.
And when it gets dark, and quiet, and dull on the flight deck at 41,000 feet a thousand miles from anywhere, it’s time.
Did I ever tell you about that time in London when the police picked up the entire crew walking down the middle of the street at 3am?
And so it goes . . .
The cockpit is a solemn place in the pregnant pause between preflight and pushback. Always, like a deserted island where everything’s already been said: checklists done, preflight complete, systems verified, amen. Plenty more details and decision points ahead, but nothing to worry about now, because the litany of procedures, numbers, actions, maneuvers and control inputs are etched in your mind like an inscription in granite. Thinking about the details is unneeded; knowing what’s to come and when is like running a hand over the inscription without reading the words–and that’s enough for now.
“You have a visitor,” the number one flight attendant breaks the reverie, ushering a school-aged boy into the cockpit. He looked to be maybe seven . . . eight? Dutifully wide-eyed behind thick glasses, a woman–must be his mom–hovering behind.
“C’mon in,” you say. “Are you the new copilot?” You jerk a thumb toward the F/O. “Because he’s pretty useless. You can do a better job–you ready?” Covertly, F/O gives you the finger. You smile.
The young man shakes his head in silence. “Go ahead,” mom prompts. “Ask him.” Then she adds, “He’s usually a chatterbox; loves airplanes. I think he’s a little overwhelmed.”
Good thing I’ve been such a smartass–that doesn’t help. “Sure, ask away,” you say. Stuff about airspeed? Controls? How we operate systems? He fixes you with a flat stare like he was looking right through you and into your heart.
“How big is the sky?”
Now there’s a question I’ve never been asked. And I’m not even sure how to answer.
“Yeah, Captain,” a smirking F/O echoes, “You’ve spent about thirty years in the sky. Just how big is it?”
Hard to say. Seen it when it wasn’t big enough, plunging straight down with a tangled parachute, cows below coming into focus faster than I ever wanted. Had to get a reserve chute out before finding where the sky ended and the earth began and even then, hit like a ton of bricks as if both earth and sky wanted to teach me a lesson about leaving one for the other.
Other times, the boundaries hardly mattered; gravity, the speed of sound–just mileposts on the way to somewhere higher, farther, faster and more furious than anything else in the thinnest parts of the sky. Those times felt like you were bigger than the sky itself, bulletproof and immortal.
But then you’ve seen it, too, when it was too large, swallowing up a past or a future, a passage never to be undone.
Because when it is, the sky is mute but bears the passage anyway, indifferent: coming back? Gone forever, though you thought not.
There’s a road through the sky for that too. Too big, too far, but crossing the blue was a choice to be borne nonetheless. And if the sky were time, you’ve seen it too short, knowing some folks are making a one way passage . . .
. . . while others are only now setting out on their first. We’re all in the same sky, big or small as it is. You can ask the question, but the answer depends.
“I mean,” a small voice breaks into the suspended moment of thought and silence. “I mean in case we fall.” Big eyes, in all seriousness, all seven or eight years looking ahead and asking.
You just can’t worry about that. In fact, it wouldn’t matter anyway–we all go where we must, take the sky as it comes, cross it where we can, while we can. With those close to us or alone, however we must. Shepherded by mom today, shepherding his own tomorrow.
At the speed of sound on his own, without wings if he wants (bad idea, trust me), to new worlds and old, forward as we all go through the blue till it dims to black.
Smile. “We won’t,” you tell him. “You won’t, and we won’t. So let’s go fly.”
He thinks about it for a moment, his eyes searching, but not on me; elsewhere, maybe finding a place for the idea, judging for himself the size of the sky ahead of him. Mom gives me a look: what, knowing? Ponderous? Then a smile, steering him by the shoulders back to the cabin.
Couple more minutes and it’ll be time: seal it up, push it back, light the fires and taxi, then take off. How big is the sky?
Well, let’s go find out.
In fact, it’s the second leg of the middle turn, Dulles International, 7pm–time to get out of town: the elephant walk of international widebody jets commences shortly. If we can push back even five minutes early, we can beat the line–and the wake turbulence delay.
Use the captain’s invisibility cloak: the ability to do most pre-flight planning on the smart phone. Check the weather, the route, the fuel load. Add more fuel. Sign the release with a touch of the screen, then send a hard copy to a gate printer, all from the cockpit. Wait for it to finish printing then slip into the terminal discretely, invisibly, to pick up the paperwork, avoiding the gate chaos directly. Don’t make eye contact, don’t invite hassles, complaints, requests, anything that delays the door slam and brake release to get ahead of the fat boys headed for the runway. Still have to fly to DFW, drive home–then back out to do the turn again tomorrow. Minutes from pushback, be invisible now.
But wait. Out of the corner of your eye, you see it: a teenage girl, on her phone, tense; next to her, what could only be her younger sister in tears. No parents, no adults, just the agent telling them both, “You either board now, or you’ll have to fly tomorrow.” That sends the little one into big sobs.
“What do you need?” you ask the older, maybe sixteen-year-old sister.
She puts the cell phone down for a second, plaintive. “She left her backpack at security.”
Sigh. The agent is looking at you pointedly, his eyes saying we need to board now and shut the aircraft door. But from the tears in the young girl’s eyes, you pretty much guess what’s in the backpack. I consider taking the youngster back through security–but then think better of it.
We’d have to run to the center of the terminal, down two escalators, onto the train to the main terminal, up two more escalators, then find the security checkpoint that might still have the backpack–then retrace our steps, before departure time in fifteen minutes. Not going to happen.
I catch the older sister’s eye. “You have some ID?” She nods. “Let’s go.” I head off at a fast walk toward the mid terminal; “Wait here!” she tells her little sister, and the agent slumps the message damn you captain. Big sister’s on my heels, asking, “Can we do this?” Just shrug; “They’re not leaving without me.”
We tumble down the two-story escalator two steps at a time, shoving past others like obnoxious travelers. I envision people watching, trying to figure out why an airline captain in uniform is running away from a teenager in hot pursuit. I also remember the miles I ran that morning before flight.
Even though the automated voice is warning that the doors are closing–do not delay this train–I do anyway, holding the door as she jumps aboard. “It’s got all her school books,” she says, out of breath. Right: I have a big picture of a fifth grader hauling a load of schoolbooks on spring break.
“No worries,” I say, “It could happen to anyone.” She nods. “Special guys in there?” I ask casually. She smiles sheepishly.
I don’t care: that’s a very real tragedy for a youngster, losing all the stuffed guys that mean the world to them. Not on my watch.
We spill out of the train on the far end, then WAIT: this will take us to baggage claim and out of the secure area–we need the TSA checkpoint! We dash back through the closing exit doors, then push through the boarding passengers and out the other side.
Two sets of identical escalators–both going down. Means we have to rush up the steps–but which ones? “Which security checkpoint did you use?” I ask. She looks confused; they are identical, not sure how one could really know anyway. “Let’s try this one,” I say, rushing the steps.
We reach the TSA supervisor’s stand. He shakes his head. “No pink backpack here–try the other side.”
Figures. We run the length of the concourse and arrive at the opposite checkpoint. “You’re lucky,” a cheerful TSA agent in a pressed blue shirt says, “we were getting ready to send it to lost and found.”
Identification checked, signatures. She sees me eying her sister’s backpack. “Uh, we need to start putting a nametag on this, don’t we?”
I nod. Lesson learned. It’s confusing, especially kids traveling alone. “I was on the phone with my Mom,” she says, “hoping we could get someone to drive out here and pick up the backpack.”
“No worries,” I say, in my mind’s eye picturing the waves of 747s and A-340s pushing back, lining up for takeoff. “Anyone can lose stuff at the airport, especially at security.”
We retrace our steps as fast as we can, me feeling the morning miles, my friend feeling and looking relieved. At the gate, she hands the backpack to little sister who still looks mortified.
They rush down the jetbridge to board. I walk, telling the agent “Just charge me with the delay.” He gives me a glare that says I was going to anyway, which I answer with a smile that says I don’t care.
The elephants already started the parade and we squeezed into the conga line. Sure, I’d have some explaining to do a thousand miles or so west. But no one missed their connection in DFW, no one was unduly delayed; and most importantly, no one’s little world collapsed with the loss of everyone they loved. That, to me, matters a lot.
Because we don’t just fly jets–we fly people. That, and the occasional special bear.