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An Airline Pilot’s Life: Windshear Flashback.

Posted in air travel, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, aviation, wind shear with tags , , , , , , on June 11, 2020 by Chris Manno

Not every airline adventure–or misadventure–made it into An Airline Pilot’s Life, if only for the sake of controlling the page count. You can read an excerpt from the book that puts you in the DC-10 cockpit for my first copilot landing at LaGuardia in this month’s Airways Magazine.

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Meanwhile, here’s an incident where we tangled with windshear on approach to Raleigh-Durham Airport and to be honest, I wasn’t sure we’d successfully escape. Read on:

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The weather at Raleigh was iffy, with thunderstorms moving from east to west, towering cumulus that ranged in height between twenty-five and thirty thousand feet. That, in the context of airline operations, was simply North Carolina in the summertime.

MD80

 

The MD-80 cockpit felt crowded with three of us crammed into the small compartment in the pointy end. It wasn’t unusual to have a jumpseater but for some reason, the space that day seemed too small. But, the back of the jet was equally crammed with all 142 passenger seats full, so the extra pilot on the jumpseat, who was actually an FO I’d enjoyed flying with in the past, was a reality so he could join some buddies in Raleigh for a golf outing.

Enroute, my excellent, experienced, retired Air Force FO requested the Raleigh-Durham Airport weather. That flight segment always seemed quick to me, maybe because I was more accustomed to the longer Seattle or Boston legs out of DFW, so I was glad he’d gotten an early start on the weather.

“The airfield is clear,” he said, and handed me the weather that our onboard printer had spit out. I glanced at it with my non-engineer’s pilot eyes: Instinct mattered as much as data, to me. I looked for the big picture, the hidden details, like what signs are there foretelling what’s to come. Pressure falling rapidly, towering cumulus northeast. Yeah, the airfield’s clear—but. Something felt wrong.

flight 1

“Let’s plan flaps 28,” I said, which doesn’t sound extraordinary: the MD-80 standard approach configuration was 28 degrees of flaps because it saved fuel. I didn’t hold with that, personally, having flown the MD-80 for twenty-plus years myself. There were less times when 28 was actually required than not, and I liked having the power up on approach because of the added drag of 40 flaps because it made for better go-around response under normal circumstances.

But “what wasn’t there,” what the weather report didn’t explicitly state, gave me pause: flaps 40 meant flaps 15 for go-around, which was extra drag we wouldn’t need if there was a hint of wind shear. Flaps 28 was less drag on the approach and since it would be paired with flaps 11 on the go-around, if we were to fly a go-around, which was also an extra margin of performance we might be glad we had. Layers of thinking and prevention, that’s all part of the captain’s job.

We started a long enroute descent straight into runway 05L. We’d briefed the approach as an ILS, my preference, even though the weather was currently VFR. I always prefer the precision approach and the missed approach, myself. That way, if we request the ILS, there’s no ambiguity about what we’ll do on the missed approach. So many pilots brief “Missed approach will be with the tower” which is really no brief at all. More importantly—and I often have to correct this—if you’re cleared to fly the ILS, you’re expected to fly the published missed approach, not “go with the tower.”

Ahead to the east of the field, the sky darkened to a bruised blue and clouds stacked well into the stratosphere. We had a good radar paint ahead which showed just enough mileage between us and the storms to execute the missed approach if needed. The winds seemed steady off the nose, maybe even increasing slightly, which foretold the approaching gust front from the storms east of the field.

We never saw it coming: below a thousand feet, in clear air, with the runway in sight, we lost over twenty knots of airspeed instantly and began to sink. In a heartbeat, the WAGS (Windshear Alert And Guidance System) sprang to life, commanding a pitch-up and calling out “Windshear! Windshear!”

I kicked off the autothrottles and I was already hand-flying, so I aimed the nose towards fifteen degrees of pitch and firewalled the throttles. Still, we continued to sink, even at maximum thrust from both engines.

“Fifteen degrees,” my FO called out to cue me, “We’re still sinking, airspeed minus ten.”

I caught the five-hundred foot marker on the radio altimeter tape out of the corner of my eye. Shit. And we were still sinking.

We’d been ambushed: an outflow boundary from a thunderhead behind us had tossed us a huge tidal wave of tailwind. Slowly, gradually, we regained flying speed and crept skyward at barely two-hundred feet per minute. We cleaned up, executed the missed approach and as we did, we requested clearance direct to Norfolk. We cruised the twenty minutes to Norfolk in relative quiet.

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“You just never know,” I told my FO as we taxied in to a gate at Norfolk. He just nodded. We’d done everything correctly, but: you just never know. You’re vulnerable on approach, dirty, slow and low and I was just glad for my instinctive bias towards flaps 28, just based on a hunch.

The jumpseater actually deplaned in Norfolk—said he’d rent a car and drive back to Raleigh, even though we’d be returning there ourselves after refueling. About half of the passengers deplaned too, because I guess they’d all had enough flying for the day, especially with the closeup look at the dirt a few miles from the Raleigh runway.

Procedures, instinct and luck—a little bad luck and a lot of good—and we made it to Raleigh a few hours after the storm had passed. Sometimes, it’s just that way.

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MD-80 Flashback

Posted in airline, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airlines, airport, aviation, crewlife, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, flight training, pilot, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 28, 2020 by Chris Manno

MD80

I flew the American Airlines’ MD-80s for over 20 years and more than 10,000 pilot hours. She was the mainstay of our fleet for a long time and generally speaking, it was a decent jet to fly.

My first actual flight as copilot is recorded in detail below. This is an excerpt from my true-life story, An Airline Pilot’s Life, which is holding at Amazon’s #1 New Release in commercial aviation. In this book I take you along in the cockpits of American Airlines’ DC-10s, MD-80s, F-100s and Boeing 737s. Every training program, every aircraft shakedown flight, and more, including my years as an instructor/evaluator pilot. How do the jet’s controls feel? What are the maneuvering characteristics? How is the engine response? Get firsthand, first-person answers.

Here’s a sample, letting you sit in the copilot’s seat on my first landing in the MD-80, with 142 passengers on board:

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“Localizer capture,” said Charles Clack, a Check Airman, from the left seat. Ahead, the lights of the Los Angeles basin sprawled like diamonds scattered across the blanket of night as we sank lower on our approach to Long Beach Airport.

Technically, I should have made that callout, being the pilot flying, as soon as our flight director system captured the navigational signal leading us to the runway. But that was why there was a Check Airman in the captain’s seat supervising my first landing—with 142 unknowing passengers aboard—in the MD-80.

MD-80 syllabus 001 (2)

As is typically the case, I discovered the real aircraft flew better and different from the simulator, which had been my total experience “flying” the MD-80 up to that point. I had the jet trimmed up nicely and the winds were mild so she flew a steady, true course with little correction from me.

But the most important, exciting and rewarding point for me was, I was the pilot flying. That felt good, after almost two years sitting sideways at the DC-10 engineer’s panel. That had been an easy, decent gig, but this is what I was here for.

Fully configured with full flaps, the MD-80 autothrottles kept the EPR (Engine Pressure Ratio, pronounced “EEP-er”) fairly high, which was good: she flew more stable at a higher power setting with more drag. The MD-80 Operating Manual recommended flaps 28 for routine use because it saved fuel due to the reduced drag compared to flaps 40. But I learned from experience that the jet flew a better, tighter approach at the higher power setting and really, how much extra fuel was being burned from the final approach fix to touchdown anyway?

Fully configured with gear and flaps, I simply flew the long silver jet down the guy wire Major Wingo had told me about, from our vector altitude all the way to touchdown on the comparatively short Long Beach runway. The landing was firm but decent, although the nosewheel came down harder than I’d anticipated.

MD-80 checklist 1 001 (2)

“I should have reminded you about that,” Charles said later in the hotel van. “With flaps forty, the nose is heavy; so you have to ease it down.”

Still, nothing could dampen my elation at having flown my first takeoff and landing in a passenger jet at a major airline. With a full load of passengers on board. That was it—I was really an airline pilot at last. Cross another item off the dream come true list, I said to myself silently.

The first officer upgrade at the Schoolhouse had been a breeze for a couple reasons. First, the McDonnell-Douglas systems logic and flight guidance processes were much the same as those on the DC-10. I already understood “CLMP,” “IAS,” “VS” and all of the flight guidance modes and what they’d do because I’d been monitoring the DC-10 pilots’ processes and procedures for a couple years.

And, I was paired with Brian, a very smart, capable captain-upgrade pilot for the entire ground school and simulator programs. He was a Chicago-based pilot, quiet, serious, and very capable. He offered easygoing help and coaching, just as he’d do with his copilots up at O’Hare and I learned a lot from him. He’d be an excellent captain, I could already tell, and in fact, he became a Check Airman himself eventually.

MD 80 QRH 2 001 (2)

The MD-80 itself was a study in design contradictions. When Douglas Aircraft stretched the old DC-9 by adding two fuselage extensions, one forward of the wing root and one aft, they didn’t enlarge or beef up the wing at all. By contrast, when Boeing extended the 737 series, they’d enlarged and improved the wing. The MD-80 simply had higher wing loading, which is not an optimal situation from a pilot’s view. The lift was adequate, but certainly not ample, reducing the stall margin. While Boeing’s philosophy was “make new,” Douglas seemed to be simply “make do.”

The ailerons were unpowered, relying on the exact same sluggish flying tabs the old KC-135 tankers had. She was lethargic and clumsy in the roll axis and the actual control wheels in the cockpit were cartoonishly large to give pilots more leverage against the lethargic ailerons. To boost roll response at slower speeds, the wing spoilers were metered to the ailerons, which was a mixed blessing: they didn’t raise the left wing to reinforce a right turn; rather, they dropped the right wing with drag. In an engine failure situation, the last thing you needed was spoiler drag added to engine thrust loss in any maneuver. That was Douglas doing “make do,” as they had done with so many hastily added components on the DC-10.

air captain upgrade 001

The instrument panel was chaotic, as if they’d just thrown in all the indicators and instruments they could think of and then slammed the door. That left the pilots to constantly sort out useful information and block out distracting nuisance warnings. Douglas made a stab at lightening the scan load on the pilots with an elaborate array of aural warnings, a voice known as “Bitching Betty” to pilots. They just weren’t sensitive enough to be useful, like yelling “landing gear” in certain situations where landing gear wasn’t needed, which gradually desensitized a pilot to the point where you’d reflexively screen out the distraction, which was good, but also the warning, which was bad.

MD-80 emergency card 2 001 (2)

The most unbelievable bit of cockpit clumsiness was the HSI, or “Horizontal Situation Indicator,” the primary compass-driven course and heading indicator before each pilot. Mine on the copilot’s side was placed off-center and mostly behind the bulky control yoke. It was actually angled slightly to make it more visible to the captain, because his instrument display was also obstructed by his control yoke, an incredibly clumsy arrangement.

The ultimate design goofiness was the standby compass, which on most aircraft was located right above the glareshield between the pilots. Douglas engineers must have had a field day designing the MD-80 whiskey compass, locating it on the aft cockpit bulkhead above the copilot’s right shoulder. To use it, you had to flip up a folding mirror on the glareshield itself, aim and find the compass behind both pilots’ backs, then try to fly while referencing the compass in the tiny mirror.

The fuselage was long and thin, earning the jet the nickname “the Long Beach sewer pipe” because it had been built in Long Beach at the McDonnell-Douglas plant. Flight attendants called it the “Barbie Dream Jet” because it was almost toy-like compared to the other American Airlines narrow body jet, the 727.

MD 80 cockpit 1

The problem with the increased fuselage length was that Douglas hadn’t enlarged the rudder at all on the stretched MD-80, so the rudder itself was fairly useless for heading changes or turn coordination. All it seemed to do was torque the fuselage and have little effect on the aircraft’s azimuth. Eventually, an MD-80 pilot learned to ignore the rudder pedals in the air, unless it was needed to control yaw during a thrust loss on either engine.

The aspect of having the engines mounted along the aircraft centerline was a good deal compared to wing mounted engines which incur more asymmetrical yaw in an engine failure and I appreciated that. The engines were so far back that you couldn’t hear an engine failure in the cockpit, so there were actually warning lights to alert pilots of a failure.

The JT8D engine response was forceful and the engines themselves were the Pratt and Whitney equivalent of the gutsy General Electric TF-33 fanjets we had on the EC-135 J at Hickam. Minus the roll heaviness and disregarding the cockpit design mess, I wasn’t about to let anything dampen my enthusiasm for line flying as a pilot at a major airline.

I’d waited long enough to bid first officer that I could actually hold a set schedule rather than an “on call” reserve pilot schedule. At my seniority range, the trips weren’t very good, but they were trips just the same.

My first month I held a schedule of early two day Buffalo trips. Still, I was undaunted—I had a schedule! A regular airline pilot trip.

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Read more: fly the DC-10, the F-100 and more.

Get your copy of An Airline Pilot’s Life in paperback or Kindle format from Amazon Books HERE.  Makes a great Father’s Day gift!

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Pilot Report: Boeing 737 vs. McDonnell-Douglas MD-80

Posted in airliner, flight crew, jet, pilot with tags , , , , , on December 17, 2011 by Chris Manno

Now that I have nearly a thousand hours in the left seat of the Boeing 737-800, and having as well over 15,000 in the MD-80, I feel qualified to make some judgments about how the two stack up against each other.

For me, there’s one hands-down winner. I’ll get to that.

But first, looking at it from a hands-on pilot perspective, let me say what I think are the crucial factors in both jets, then compare them. And I’ll do it in order of importance from my line-swine pilot view:

1. Power: never mind the technology difference between the General Electric JT8D turbo fans on the Maddog and the CFM-56 high-bypass fans on the 737. It’s the thrust difference I want in my right hand when I’m trying to lift 170,000 pounds off a runway. And technology aside (I’ll get to that), the three full power options (22,000, 24,000, and 26,000 pounds of thrust) plus the bonus kick up to 27,000 pounds per engine on the 737 for special use beats the snot out of the 19,000 flat rated and standard de-rated engines on the MD-80. Yes, the -80 weighs less than the 737 (max of 150,000 vs. 174,000 pounds), and no, I don’t have each plane makers’ specs, but the thrust-to-weight performance from the left seat feels substantially more secure and significant from the 737.

You notice that right away when you do a static takeoff with the 737 at all weights: you’ve got buttloads of giddyup (I think engineers call it “acceleration,” but then they don’t actually feel it on paper versus in the cockpit blasting forward–that’s “a buttload of giddyup”) shortening  those critical moments of vulnerability between brake release and V1.

I have no idea what engineers think of when they look at thrust and take-off advantages, but any pilot with experience knows that those seconds before reaching flying speed are the most vulnerable, particularly close to max abort speed, because I’d rather take any problems into the air than have to wrestle them to a stop on a runway. The MD-80 has good smash at mid to light weights, but in crucial situations (Mexico City, for example, or on a short runway on a hot day) the 737’s CFM56’s rule. I need the shortest possible period of on-runway vulnerability; I know engine hot-section limits and longterm life are important too, but the CFM56 achieves better on-wing engine endurance in operation than the JT8Ds, year over year.

Ditto for a go-around or windshear options: the MD-80 is famous for it’s slow acceleration–I’ve been there MANY times–and when you’re escaping from windshear or terrain, I can promise you the pucker factor of the “one, Mississippi, two Mississippi” on up to six to eight seconds will have your butt chewing up the seat cushion like horse’s lips. Not sure if that’s due to the neanderthal 1970’s vintage hydro-mechanical fuel control (reliably simple–but painstakingly slow to spool) or the natural limitation of so many rotor stages. But the 737’s solid state EICAS computers reading seventy-teen parameters and trimming the CFMs accordingly seem to give the performance a clear edge. And a fistful of 737-800 throttles beats the same deal on the Maddog, period. Advantage, Boeing.

2. Wing: let me go back in time. I also flew the F-100 for a couple years as captain. That was a great jet, with a simple wing: no leading edge devices. Coming from jets with slats the feel was clearly different on take-off, where there was a distinct (if you’re a seat-of-the-pants guy, and that’s all I’ve ever been) translational period between rotate and lift-off due to the hard wing. Ditto in the flare and in some reversals in flight like on a go-around. Not a bad thing, just something you had to anticipate, but not a warm-fuzzy in the seat of your aerodynamic pants.

Stretched jet, stretched wing.

That’s a good analogy between the Boeing versus the Douglas wing: you feel the generous lift margin in the 737. That’s because when Boeing stretched the jet to the -800 length, they expanded the wing as well. That wing was already loaded much lighter than the DC-9 wing which Douglas didn’t enlarge when they added to two fuselage plugs plus about 15,000 pounds to the MD-80. Longer and with better cambered  (look at the DC-10, and no dihedral) airfoil is the Boeing design and I’m grateful for their foresight and superior engineering–especially at the top end of the performance envelope: you need anti-ice? No problem–turn it on. The Maddog? Better be 2,000 feet below optimum, or prepare for stall recovery–and anyone on the -80 fleet knows I’m not exagerating. Wing performance? No contest: Boeing.

3. Handling: again let me go back in time. Flew the T-37 like every new Air Force pilot up until recently–then moved on to the T-38. Using standard Tweet inputs on The Rocket would bang your helmet off the canopy because of the boosted flight controls, giving you 720 degrees of roll in a second at full deflection.

That’s the 737 compared to the MD-80: no aileron boost on the -80, and little help from the powered rudder–because of the long fuselage length and relatively short moment arm between the vertical fin and the MAC (Mean Aerodynamic Chord), the rudder seems to only impart a twisting moment that’s pretty useless. So it’s a wrestling match for roll control, in and out of turns with the -80.

I still tend to over control the 737 in acute roll situations (e.g., the 30 degree offset final at 300′ AGL required in and out of DCA) due to previous brain damage caused by years of arm wrestling the MD-80 around tight corners. But with the 737, the seat-of-the-pants security of that generous wing is apparent at all speed and altitudes and the hydraulic aileron boost gives you the muscle to command a smooth and prompt response. Handling? It’s all 737 for me, including on the ground: new MD-80 captains will need Ibuprofen to counter the wrist strain of the nosewheel steering, two-handed in tight spots. I don’t miss that at all.

4. Cockpit layout: okay, give the -80 its due–that was one comfortable nest once you got settled. But that’s as far as it goes for me. Yes, I know the 737 kitbag position is inaccessible. But American Airlines is the first airline certified by the FAA for iPad use from the ground to altitude. Kitbag, what’s a kitbag?

MD-80 left seat–HSI? Where is it?

Trade-off? The MD-80 HSI is obscured by the control yoke. Are you kidding me? Like you might need lateral situational awareness for trivia like, navigating? Flying an approach? I spent 20+ years working around that human factors engineering failure–I’m grateful for the Boeing engineers who gave me seven 9″ CRT flat plate displays with every parameter I could want displayed digitally and God bless them all–a Heads Up Display! Lord have mercy, even a simpleton has a crosscheck in that jet thanks to the God of HUD.

The 737 doesn’t have the elbow room you might like and everyone who I fly with who has come off the big Boeings (757, 767, 777) gripes about that. Fine. I’m all about performance and the flight displays, computers, communications and advanced Flight Management Systems in the 737 avionics suite beat the pants off of the 75 and 76–and the HUD tops the 777 as well. Nuff said: gimme the Guppy cockpit over the Maddog. Boeing put everything I need at my fingertips, and it’s all state-of-the-art, whereas Douglas engineers threw everything they could everywhere in the cockpit and slammed the door.

My 737 home.

So there you have it: power, wing, handling and even by a narrow margin, the cockpit too. I’m a Boeing guy, back from wayward days flying Douglas metal from the DC-10 to the MD-80. In my experience as a pilot, in my hours in both Boeing and Douglas jets, I’m grateful to be flying the best jets in the sky. Now you know which are which.

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