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Air Asia Crash Raises Questions For Pilots.

Posted in air travel, airline pilot blog, airliner, airlines, flight crew, pilot, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 9, 2015 by Chris Manno

The search continues for the Digital Flight Data Recorder (DFDR) and Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) from the lost Air Asia flight 8501 and as that process drags on, speculation about the cause of the crash abounds.

Multiple news media sources advance abstract theories based more on the wide-open field of “what could happen” rather than what’s likely, serving only to blur the line between fact and fiction.

I won’t speculate on what happened to QZ 8501 because until the DFDR and CVR are recovered, transcribed and the recovered data analyzed, any theory advanced is just more noise in the media clamor aimed mostly at ratings rather than facts.

But, I can speak to what concerns me as the pilot of a modern, 160 seat airliner flying often in the same circumstances encountered by the lost flight. My goal in learning what the flight’s recorders report is simple: I want to know how to avoid a similar outcome.

With that in mind, here are my concerns. First, the slim margin between high speed and low speed limits at high altitude and the liabilities of each. Second, the problems presented by convective activity in crowded airspace. Finally, recovery from any inflight upset at altitude that may be encountered as a result of any or all of the above factors.

Early in any flight, the aircraft’s weight is the highest, limiting the ability of the aircraft to climb into the thinner air at higher altitude. As the flight progresses and fuel is consumed, the aircraft grows lighter and climb capability increases. Generally speaking, later in flight there are more habitable altitudes available due to weight constraints easing.


But don’t think that climbing is the only option for weather avoidance. Often enough, a descent is needed to avoid the top part of a storm, the anvil-shaped blow-off containing ice, high winds and turbulence. Equally as often, lower altitudes may turn out to have a smoother ride.

The other major climb restriction along frequently used jet routes is converging traffic. Aircraft flying opposing directions must be separated by a thousand feet vertically, so if I  want to climb to avoid weather, I have to nonetheless stay clear of oncoming traffic. The New York Post reported the incorrect statement that the air traffic controllers handling the Air Asia flight “made the fatal mistake” of denying the Air Asia’s pilot request for a higher altitude. The first job of air traffic control is to separate traffic, particularly converging nose to nose. Climbing through conflicted airspace–or granting clearance to do so–would more likely be a fatal mistake.

sunset 1

But there’s even more to the story: air traffic controllers respond to such requests in a more fluid fashion than the static “no” being implied by many media reports. In actual practice, for a climb or descent request, the denial would be more typically, “Unable climb, you have traffic on your nose,” or, “It’ll be 5 to 7 minutes before we can clear you higher,” or, “We can vector you off course so you can clear the airway and traffic and then climb,” or, “Unable in this sector, check with the next controller.” Regardless, there are other options to avoid weather.

If changing altitude is not an immediate option, lateral deviation is the next choice. But the same obstacles–weather and traffic–may limit that option as well.

So now, if vertical and lateral deviation isn’t immediately available, you must do your best to pick your way through the weather with radar, if possible, until one of those options comes available (again, at ATC denial isn’t final or permanent) or you’re clear of the weather.

Which brings us back to the margin between high and low speed limit. This is even more critical in convective weather, because turbulence can instantaneously bump your airspeed past either limit if there’s not enough leeway to either side of your cruise Mach.

The picture below shows a normal airspeed spread in cruise. Notice the speed tape on the left with the red and white stripe above and the yellow line below the airspeed number box. The hash marks represent 10 knots of airspeed. The red and black marker above the speed readout is called the chain, and it depicts the maximum speed limit for weight and altitude. The yellow line below the numbers is called the hook, and it marks the minimum speed required to keep flying.

adi 2

Turbulence, or more accurately, high altitude windshear, can bump you past either limit, or both, if there’s less than say, ten knots of slack, because moderate turbulence can cause swings closer to twenty knots; severe turbulence even more. Essentially, turbulence can instantly bump an aircraft out of its flight envelope.

In that case, the aircraft can depart controlled flight in a couple of different ways. The one that concerns me most is on the high end: if turbulence or any other factor pitched the nose down and the airspeed then climbed above the chain, the worst case is a phenomenon rarely discussed outside of the jet pilot community called “Mach tuck” that affects swept wing aircraft. Essentially, if you don’t immediately apply the proper corrective input, in a matter of seconds, recovery is beyond all means from the cockpit.

On the low speed side, if the wing stalls due to an airspeed below the hook, recovery is possible once the airspeed is regained. That takes altitude to regain, but normally can be done if a stall occurs at cruise altitude. But even that requires recognition and then the proper corrective control inputs, and Air France Flight 477 with three pilots in the cockpit entered a stall at cruise altitude but never identified the problem or applied the proper recovery inputs, resulting in a crash into the Atlantic that killed all aboard.

Bottom line: you need a wider spread between high and low speed limits in case of turbulence. If you can’t avoid turbulence and need to change altitude, you must assure a wide airspeed margin between limits to avoid being pushed by turbulence beyond either speed constraint. Here’s what the airspeed range looks like at high altitude:

adi 1

There’s very little tolerance for turbulence and any associated airspeed fluctuation.

In the worst case scenario, if the aircraft is pushed beyond its flight envelope to the extent that controlled flight is departed, a pilot must quickly and accurately recognize which situation is at hand, high or low speed buffet, then immediately apply the correct control input.

Problem is, they may initially look the same, and the correct remedy for one applied to the other severely worsens the situation. Specifically, if the aircraft begins a descent at a speed beyond the chain, the corrective action would be to deploy speed brakes, pull throttles to idle, apply back pressure to raise the nose, and I’d be ready to even lower the gear to add drag, even knowing that would likely result in gear doors being ripped off the aircraft.

If this recovery is not done early in the pitchdown, the result will be a dive with no chance of recovery.

If a low speed stall is encountered, the proper corrective action would be to add power and lower the nose until flying speed was recovered. But, if the high speed departure–also a pitch down and descent–was mistakenly interpreted to be a slow speed stall, applying the slow speed recovery to a high speed departure would be fatal.

The other way? If you mistakenly added drag and pulled back power in a slow speed stall? That would prolong the stall, but if the correct control input was eventually applied, the aircraft could recover, altitude permitting.


Adding the factors that make this vital task of discrimination difficult would be any associated systems failure and the physical effects of turbulence that can make instruments nearly impossible to read.

In any pitch down, if rapid and deep enough, can cause electrical failure due to generators failing at negative G-loads associated with the pitch down. Yes, back up controls and instruments exist, but recognizing the situation, taking corrective action and reading backup instruments also takes time and attention.

Pitot-static failure, one of the contributing causes in the Air France slow speed stall, can also be difficult to recognize in turbulence or in an electrical failure.

Regardless, the high speed situation must be correctly identified and recovery initiated in a matter of seconds. Both situations would be difficult to diagnose and both recoveries would be very challenging to perform in turbulence and with any other systems failure or complication. Both recoveries are time-sensitive and if not managed correctly, one recovery could induce the other stall. That is, too much drag and power reduction carried beyond the return from the high speed exceedence can induce a low speed stall, and too much nose down pitch and excess power from a slow speed recovery could push you through the high speed limit.

So here are my questions, which are those that will be asked by The QZ8501 accident investigation board. First what did the aircraft weigh and what was the speed margin at their cruise altitude and at the altitude they had requested? What type turbulence did they encounter and what speed and altitude excursions, if any, resulted? What collateral malfunctions, if any did they encounter? And finally, what departure from controlled flight, if any, occurred, and what remedial action, if any, was attempted?

These questions can only be answered by the DFDR and CVR and my interest–and that of every airline pilot–is mostly this: I want to know what exactly happened so as to be prepared in case I encounter the situation myself, and I want to know what they did in order to know what exactly I should or shouldn’t do.

Like pilots at all major US airlines, I get annual simulator training in exactly these scenarios, hands-on practice recovering from stalls and uncontrolled flight. Is that enough? Can we do that better?

Once the facts contained in the flight’s recorder are extracted and analyzed, we’ll have the answers to all of these questions, which will help us prevent a repeat of this disaster. Beyond that, speculation is just a sad, pointless part of unfortunate ratings-hungry media circus.


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.


Flying Then As Now

Posted in airline, airline industry, airline pilot, airline pilot blog with tags , , , , , , , , on May 5, 2014 by Chris Manno


Aw, hell, it’s a beautiful day; so why not go down onto the flight line instead of just right into the cockpit for a change? Bright sky, gleaming jets, the sun climbing its early arc from a not too warm, still fresh and breezy morning toward what will be a hot, dusty dry pre-afternoon. The perfect, clear, preflight moment.

Clomp down the jet bridge stairs, and try not to face plant on the spike-grated steps grabbing the soles of your dress shoes (the ramp crew would love it) as you descend to the tarmac. Feels  so familiar: jet exhaust and the smell of kerosene mixing with the light scent of leaked Skydrol, engine oil, maybe even a spattering of propylene glycol dripping out of drain masts, souvenirs of previous departures from up north.

Over it all, the warm, dusty signature Texas breeze, dry, easy but mustering strength for a gusty day later, a spring promise well kept. And the scent and the sky and the sun and the wind; feet on the ramp, moving among metal giants at rest but ready for flight. There’s that same old “this is mine” feeling, this is my world, my jet, fueled, ready for me to climb in, strap it on, then bring the beast to life and launch off into that indigo canopy above.


Flashback: tromping around on the Air Force flightline in flight boots, heading for sleeker, faster, more treacherous jets. The flight boots were a wry realization: we’d all been foot printed because, the laconic tech who did that job told us, chances were good that given the nature of the jets and the type of flying, whatever was in the boots was most of what they’d have to identify us by in certain cases.

Whatever: we were immortal. Tromping out of the life support shop loaded with crap–a chute, helmet bag, leg board; tail number of your assigned jet inked in ballpoint on your palm, along with “step time:” the briefed “step to the jet” minute coordinated with everyone else involved. Give a glance at the sky to see if those pattern altitude winds are anywhere near what the weather-guessers forecast. Probably not.

The alcohol swab you used on your oxygen mask to clean it before leak-testing it still burns your fresh-shaven face, letting you know you’re alive, despite the early hour. Hoist yourself into the converted dump truck with bench seats that slowly trolls the flight line, sad and slow as Eeyore, pausing to pick up pilots just blocked in after a flight, taking others like us out to our jets. Exchange a grunt or a pleasant obscenity with a fellow aviator also loaded down with flight gear. But even then, as now, before morning flights, always preferred general “shut up” before flying, like a silent meditation before church.


Never was–am–nervous about flight. Just prefer less earthly clutter on my mind, mostly calmness, zen, before the orchestra strikes up. And then in my mind the relationships of time, distance, speed, angles, rates, thrust, pitch and roll all come out of the woodwork like ghosts in a darkened dance hall: we all know our places and how this waltz interlocks into a kaleidoscope of motion. Think it, live it, do it.

Like a blind date: you know what she looks like from her picture, but seeing the jet–your jet–from afar, then close up; it’s the best: we’re going to do this. It’s all coming together, and when it does, there’s going to be speed, thunderous noise, power, altitude, and no gravity. You can look for my boots later, I don’t give a damn: we’re going to this dance.

Something about touching the jet, as you walk around it, visually inspecting, really matters. Because just like a any thoroughbred, you’re going to pat her flank before you just throw a saddle on and cinch it up. Used to always pat the underwing vortilon on the Maddog; many a fueler watched with mild disinterest, ramp denizens familiar with pilot touchstones. Not sure why I did, maybe just because I always did, reassuring me that she was metal, and her that I was not.


Now I just walk under that bigger, fatter cambered Boeing wing, too high to touch even if I wanted to. Admire that clean, shiny leading edge that tapers outward then flows gracefully up into the seven foot winglet on each wingtip. Love the big, gaping scoop of engine cowl around the clattering fan section of the high-bypass engine, blades windmilling loosely, soon to be centrifugally taut at 30,000 RPM just at idle. They gulp air so powerfully even during taxi that you’ve seen them suck puddles, even just moisture, from the concrete in twisty tornados swirling right into the engines.


Around the towering, gleaming (new paint job) tail, then under the left wing, always with one eye open for the dozens of ground carts and tractors scuttling around the ramp like a jailbreak. You could get run over down here. Enough; time to mount up.


The cockpit is always home. Everything there is spare, utile, functional, and state of the art. Some pilots call climbing in “building their nest,” hooking up comm cables, adjusting straps and rudder pedals and seat position. I don’t call it anything, I just strap in. My favorite copilots have little or nothing to say as we piece together the dozens of technical steps required to go fly: performance, navigation, systems. What needs to be said is rote, a litany, more like gears and cams than conversation, and I like it just fine that way.

“Step time” becomes push time, the canopy clunking closed and locked gives way to the forward entry door thunking shut, locks engaged. Then the cockpit door bolts shut; talk on the crew interphone to the ground guy unseen below. Release the brakes, clear the tug driver to shove us off the gate, onto the ramp, cleared to start. She comes to life, engines spinning up, fires lit, hydraulic brawn ready, thrust available when you call for it.


With the tug disconnected, the crew chief holds up the nose steering pin, red “remove before flight” streamer attached, for you to verify that hydraulic steering is back under your control; you flash the landing light, he snaps you a salute, then the ground crew hops on the tug and trundles back to the gate.

Give ’em a minute to get clear, then call for the flaps to be extended, flight control checks, then taxi. Beautiful morning, promising a stellar, clear spring day, one you almost hate to miss. But then, as she rolls in response to your nudge of jet thrust, with a squinty glance above, you notice the chalk lines of contrails arcing east and west, north and south.

Thoughts of the day, the earth, springtime, and anything below five miles and five hundred miles per hour somehow seems less relevant, even less real. It’s all about getting and being up there again, precisely, as perfectly–and in my case, as quietly–as possible.

Granted, she’s more of a draft horse than a thoroughbred, but there’s tremendous power and grace in her nonetheless. And these days we realize we’re mortal, boots or dress shoes–but we really don’t give a damn about that either.

It’s a kinder, gentler type of flying, especially with 160 warm bodies aboard. Burnished, polished smooth by the thousands of hours in the air, but then as now, and ever, what really matters is flight.




Jet Fuelishness

Posted in air travel, airline pilot blog, airliner, airlines, airport, flight crew, jet, passenger, pilot, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 15, 2013 by Chris Manno

I’ve always agreed with the pilot maxim, “The only time you can have too much fuel is when you’re on fire.” But, as with all things in life, there’s a catch: first, you have to be able to lift the weight into the air, and second, you have to be able to bring the tonnage to a stop on landing.

fueling 3

Two simple requirements, or so it would seem–yet nothing could be further from the truth. Let’s look at the second requirement: stopping distance.

All month I’ve been flying into John Wayne-Orange County Airport in Santa Ana. That’s by choice–I like the  typically favorable weather, plus the lack of ground traffic that makes for a quick in and out. Plus, the food options from Gerry’s Wood Fired Dogs to Ruby’s awesome turkey burgers rival the Udon, Cat Cora and Tyler Florence options at San Francisco International. But I digress.

sna 10-9

Today I’m flying the 737-800 from DFW to Santa Ana (SNA) and approximately 2 hours from takeoff, I’ll call Flight Dispatch and ask, “What fuel load are you planning today?” And he will say, “I don’t know.”

That’s because the flight planning system won’t issue a fuel load until one hour prior. I realize that–but as crew, we show up one hour prior and by then, the fuel is already being pumped into the jet. I want to shortstop a problem unique to SNA. That is, fuel is really expensive at some California airports, including taxes, airport assessments and surcharges. So it does make sense to “ferry” some fuel into those airports.

That is, if I need an arrival fuel of say, typically, 5,200 pounds in order to have divert or go-around options at the destination, we fuel up to that total, then add “ferry fuel,” or an additional upload so as to require less refueling, buying less with the added fees, taxes and cost for the return flight.

Problem is, SNA has a fairly short runway (5,700 feet, versus 13,000 at DFW) making stopping distance is critical.

So, while extra fuel saves money on refueling (yes, you have to figure that it does exact a higher fuel burn inbound because of the additional weight), we still have to have a sufficient stopping margin.

737 landing crop

In all cases, the maximum landing weight of the jet based on the structural limit is 144,000 pounds which, on a dry runway, requires 5,300 feet out of the 5,700 feet available to stop. I discount headwinds, which are favorable, and simply disallow tailwind corrections: at 144,000 pounds, I require zero–I’m not even trifling with a 400 foot margin touching down at 150 knots.

So my effort in calling Dispatch is to intervene in the numbers game: do NOT plan max “savings” ferry fuel until you know what the zero fuel weight (passengers, cargo, empty jet–everything BUT fuel) is.


Then subtract the zero fuel weight from 144,000 (max landing weight), deduct the planned enroute fuel burn and see what is left over–THAT , minus 2,000 pounds as a safety buffer (mine personally), and you’ll have a reasonable ferry fuel load.

The problem is, by the time I get to the jet, the “planned” fuel load–which doesn’t include the above calculation, because the zero fuel weight isn’t firm yet–is already aboard. If I do the math and find that we’ll be arriving weighing over the max landing weight, I have two choices: defuel (bad choice) before pushback or fly lower (dumb choice) to reduce the landing weight.

Both are bad options: if we defuel, that fuel must be discarded–trashed–because quality assurance standards wisely say you cannot take fuel from one aircraft’s tanks and meet the purity standards for another aircraft. So that’s money in the trash, plus a guaranteed delay to accomplish the defuel.

sunset contrail

The “fly lower” option works, but look what we’ve done: to “save” on return fuel, we’ve wasted thousands by flying at 24,000 feet versus 38,000 or 40,000 feet, just to squeak in under the maximum landing weight. And it’s bumpier and noisier down there among the cumulus clouds.

I always choose the second option, although I don’t always like landing at the maximum structural limit of the airframe on the shortest runway in the system. But, at least we can save the absolute maximum fuel for the return, rather than simply defueling into the trash.

On a longer runway, say LAX, stopping distance wouldn’t be a consideration, but the 144,000 pound limit is simply universal: doesn’t matter where you land, 144,000 pounds is max allowable. I need to intervene in the mathematics before the fuel goes on the jet outbound.


The second, problem: the return. Dispatch may shave the arrival fuel to 5.0, which is sufficient, but there’s a catch. He’s planned us at a low altitude (29,000) because of chop reported in Arizona at the higher altitudes. If he’s right, at that lower altitude (FL290) I know from 38 years as a pilot that there will be both flight deviations for spacing or weather, or a choppy ride anyway.

So here’s what I personally do: I add another thousand for additional time and distance flexibility in case the turbulence forecast is correct–but I also plan to climb immediately to 39,000 feet to see for myself if the ride is choppy. That’s because I’ve just flown through that airspace inbound and know firsthand what the winds and the rides are, whereas the Dispatch and even the ATC reports are hours old. Plus, and again, this is based on over 22 years as an airline captain, I know we’re taking off at dusk and the entire thermodynamics of the air mass will change dramatically.

throttles 2

So based on intuition, I’ll do the climb to 39,000 and “take the hit:” the early climb will be heavier and burn more fuel versus a later step climb, but my gut feel says we’ll regain that amount and more by cruising the longer time at the higher altitude. Notice I didn’t say 41,000, because I’m claiming a little pad because of the narrower range between high and low speed buffet at the max altitude. Plus, this time of year, surfing the jet stream at the higher altitudes will get you 510 knots or more across the ground. That’s the pay dirt of efficient flying.

Also, if I’m wrong, I did add the fuel pad up front. But I bet I’m not. The alternative is to fly lower (noisier, crowded, more weather) and experiment with the step climb–which burns fuel, too, and if you have to come back down because the ride’s bad, you’ll wish you hadn’t. But in the worst case, we’ll still land at DFW with a comfortable fuel pad.

And if I’m right, we’ll save a couple thousand pounds eastbound at the higher altitude and land fat on fuel. Fuel is time, to me, so nothing could be more important than more fuel.

Unless as I noted above, you’re on fire, or more realistically, as I’ve just explained, you’re trying to achieve the best outcome as efficiently as possible. Anything less is just plane fuelishness.

777 to

Count the beads, fly the prayers.

Posted in airline industry, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, flight crew with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 10, 2013 by Chris Manno

bug eye cockpit

Call me Ishmael, the words tiptoe through your mind, as R-I-A . . . A-N-I-H-C slides by in the plate glass mirror of the terminal ahead. Sit silently, moving eyes only as the Boeing monster ahead actually lumbers by behind your own forty foot tail fin. Eyes on the door warning lights overhead: all out, like Holmes and Ali, hit the canvas till the smelling salts 1,500 miles hence. You can’t see the ground crew, but the disembodied voice below respects the red beacons top and bottom flashing warning: these engines will come to life and suck you off your feet if you get within 25 feet once we light the fires.

 cfm56 1

Rolling backwards, slowly, that’s pushback; feet on the rudder pedals pulled up close, shoulder straps cinched up too, c-clamp headset and lap belt holding a grip on you as if parts might fly off otherwise. Cockpit cozy—everything tight, like maybe if you’re spliced into the jet like a hybrid sapling, you’ll be just one more limb with only a slight scar to distinguish where you end and the jet begins. With both engines running, she’s awake and coursing with her own power; hydraulics, electrics, pneumatics, like a track star stretching through the flight control check; 3,200 psi of hydraulic power limbering flush metal control surfaces, flexed, ready for the blocks.

Pythagoras rules the necessary headwork at San Francisco International: wind howls from the west, runways an “X marks the spot,” one into the wind, one broadside. Toss in the crossing restriction due north to top the Oakland departures and the up-vector of the algorithm dominates: spend less time on the runway, lazy upwind spoiler floating into the slipstream to counter west gale flirting with the left wing, nosewheel scrubbing like chalk on a blackboard. More power, max power. Less time convincing the wings to stay level and the nose to not slew into the wind as the rudder bites the air.


Quiet in church, dammit: no yack, not only because there’s a voice recorder you’ll have to listen to if anything goes wrong and there’s anything left of you. But more than that, show a little reverence for the litany, the monk’s beads you count but more importantly, account for the prayers they represent at about seventy tons at a hundred and fifty miles an hour. A sinless ascension is key, so recite the litany but live the prayers: you know what the jet can do, was designed to do—that’s the formality of the testament, chapter and verse, engineering, modeling, physics and formula.

Ah, but the reality of life in The Garden is nonetheless imperfect. Sunday’s counting of the beads—you have to!—gives way to Monday’s nose pointed down the runway. Would it kill anyone’s budget to put a windsock at the runway take-off power point? Never mind; just the tail bucking tells you all you really need to know. Climb the stairs one at a time, pause at the landing: planned weight, closeout weight, FMS weight; so it is written. Speeds set for max power, no assumed temp; dry runway, PFC overlay, verified, amen.


The Airbus rolling down the slab ahead fishtails as its rudder cuts against the crosswind, upwind spoiler pops like a shirt untucked; she springs off the ground and the aileron joins the spoiler and the nose swings left; going up, Mr. Tyler? We’ll do our grand jete somewhere prior to the intersection that a jumbo is rolling through right now. Hang on—she’s gonna buck.

The last note of the antiphonal challenge and response gives way to silence with the brakes held fast, heads bowed: rejected takeoff, engines only after 70; throttles smoothly to idle, spoilers, max, then and only then, full reverse, let the ABS work. Shoulder harnesses stay on as a sign of our abiding faith that if any disaster occurs after liftoff, our salvation lay in the Bay—literally—and believers plan to survive without a piece of the glareshield embedded in their skull.

Cleared for takeoff, a confirmatory glance at the FMS power setting, say it out loud, stand up the throttles, toggle the TOGA button and they shoot forward. Max power is definitely way forward, arm-wise, and a good, seat-mashing acceleration. No rookie here, running around with a shirt tail hanging out, no spoiler float due to a cloddish “I think this is what I might need at 80 knots” instead of flying it like it’s supposed to be flown, wing controls only when and as much as you need.

Power control is key to airspeed.

It’s a tussle, not quite a wrasslin’ match, thanks to boosted ailerons, but still—she ain’t happy as a high-speed tricycle and neither are you, but patience, fly; more patience. She leaps off the runway when you let her, you’re surprised at how much aileron tug on the leash is required to keep her head out of the roll she wants to do. But who’s flying whom? Do what you need to do.

Fog spills through the San Francisco Bay and tumbles between the city and Tiburon across the channel like a ghostly wrap in the fading sunlight. Steal a glance, savor it, then pay attention to the crossing restriction, the cleanup of flaps and slats and setting climb power and rate. Church is over for now, beads stowed as the earth falls away.

Nose to the blue, darkening to the east where the day expires like a prayer unsaid.

There will be beads to count, words to be read, a service in reverse as the miles spill down through the hour glass. We fly till then.

sunset 1

Motion Lotion: What’s the Commotion?

Posted in air travel, airline, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airliner, flight crew, flight delays, jet, jet flight, passenger, pilot, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 27, 2013 by Chris Manno

“The only time you can have too much fuel is when you’re on fire.” –Anonymous Pilot

Those are words to live by, in the flying business–but jet fuel is expensive. In fact, it’s just about the largest expense in the operation of the airline, which is why it makes sense to use fuel as sparingly but sensibly as possible. But as a passenger, what’s it to you?

Well, for starters, this:

tstm day

Do we go around it? Above it? Through? You won’t like the last option, but fuel is the double-edged sword in this fight: more means we’re heavier, which limits our climb. Plus, going around the weather will burn more fuel, limiting our options at our destination:

fms crz

We’re at 36,000 feet now, which is just about the optimum altitude. “Optimum” is a moving target: as you burn off fuel enroute, the jet gets lighter and the wing can handle a higher altitude, which means the engines can operate at a lower thrust setting, thus saving fuel. We’re within 200 feet of the max if we climb to 38,000 feet to top the weather. We can wait till the “max” readout shows “380,” or really, from experience, we know that in the time it takes to request and receive the clearance, plus what we’ll burn in the climb, we’ll be at the correct weight. But, there’s always a catch.


The airspeed tape on the left shows us a very narrow operating range at the top end of our altitude capability. That is, your range of acceptable airspeed is from about 212 to about 245. The “chain” above that shows the area of high speed buffet, meaning parts of the aircraft, above that speed, will begin to go supersonic. More importantly, though, in my mind, is Mach tuck: swept-wing jets tend toward a pitch down near the high speed limit, and guess what a pitch down does: your high speed becomes even higher. In a jet, particularly a passenger jet, if you don’t recover aggressively and immediately, you will not be able to stop what will become a dive.

On the bottom of the tape is the yellow line we call “the hook,” which is the slow speed stall. If you go below that speed, your airfoil will stall, and you will fall.

PFD coffin corner

So, at 38,000 feet, we have very little margin between the high and low speed buffet, requiring extreme vigilance on our part: turbulence, mountain wave action, or a drastic updraft of any kind can push us beyond either speed limit. Which is also part of the balancing act the captain must perform:

pfd coffin corner 2

I insert a slower Mach number in order to cruise more toward the middle of the range between the high and low speed limits. That, too, though, will affect our arrival time, won’t it? But that’s a balance I feel can be maintained, knowing that we’ve picked up some direct routing already. I’d rather sacrifice some time (and really, fuel) to gain a better pad between any adverse effects (mountain wave, thunderstorm up drafts, windshear, clear air turbulence) that could push us into either boundary.

And, I’ve already checked: the winds at the higher altitude are more favorable. To be even more accurate, I’ve requested a data-linked update to our flight management system, updating the projected winds the computer is using to calculate the times, distances and fuel burn it displays because what we data-linked into the system on preflight hours ago may not still be accurate:

fms crz wind update

The photo makes it hard to see, but the new, uplinked wind speeds are highlighted, all I need to do is push the “EXC” (execute) button and the entire nav calculation will be updated in a matter of seconds.

Climbing early has taken us out of more headwind earlier, so I believe the ETA will be largely unaffected. This hunch is borne out as we progress in our flight:

flt prog 1

We cross Pocatello, Idaho (PIH) six minutes ahead of schedule and up 700 pounds on fuel. If, however, the higher altitude winds were less favorable, we’d end up with the same result by going around the weather (more miles at regular cruise Mach)  as by climbing above the weather (less miles at a slower speed). The latter option is better, fuel-wise, as you can see from the fuel log above. But we’ll do whatever is safest and most optimum first, and worry about timing  later. Plus, if we don’t have what I consider a comfortable high speed-low speed margin at the higher altitude–we’re not climbing, we’ll just have to fly the additional miles (and minutes) around the storm.

It’s not just air miles between us and Seattle–it’s a constant balancing act of time, fuel, altitude and route. It all goes on steadily, quietly but relentlessly in the cockpit, but we all share the payoff in the end.


Pilot Report: 737-Next Gen Heads Up Display.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airliner with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 5, 2013 by Chris Manno

hud aaFirst Officers love to derisively grumble about the captain being a HUD cripple–meaning he can’t make a decent landing without the “HUD”–Heads Up Display.” Fine–count me in: I swear by the device.

HUDs are standard now on the Boeing 787 and I’ll bet there’s less grumbling from F/O’s for one good reason: now there’s a HUD on their side as well in the 787. On the 737-800, the HUD is only on the captain’s side.

I’ll admit that I had my doubts too when I first started the transition from MD-80 captain to 737 captain. How could Flight Management computers, ILS antennas GPS and symbol generators reliably synthesize a runway display before my eyes despite clouds and weather obscuration? Worse, without any ground-based approach aids, how could the jet’s computers and satellite receivers pinpoint our position close enough to allow for safe descent and approach–completely in the blind?

I’ll also admit, like everyone else learning to use the HUD, I was swimming in symbology and information at first. Add to that the transition from traditional round dial displays on the MD-80 to the more advanced flat-panel displays on the Boeing Next Gen jets and you have a real spaghetti bowl of information swirling in front of you and in the case of the HUD, it’s all in ghostly monochromatic green, compared to the color-sorted original display on the instrument panel that is reproduced in the HUD:


But eventually, two things happen. First, you stop swimming in the symbology. Second, you learn after dozens of approaches in the clear as well as in the blind in weather that the system is reliable.

The first part, stopping the swimming is not as easy as it sounds but the trick is this: you have to embrace the theory of the flat panel display above that gives you a symmetry of information: airspeed tape on the left side, altitude tape on the right. Compare the two readouts between the photo of the information on the photo above, then on the HUD display above that. Note the markers indicating speed limits–we call it the “chain,” showing max speeds for configuration. That shifts as you change configuration–say, add or remove flaps.

night cockpit

On the instrument panel, you see the chain in a different color–up top on the HUD, it’s all ghostly green. So two things have to happen. First, you stop looking at colors and discipline yourself to see and heed shapes–but that’s not all. Second, you learn to not look at the side  displays, but rather, incorporate shapes into your peripheral awareness. That is key: peripheral sense. keep both tapes, airspeed and altitude in your indirect awareness, alert for the shapes on each giving you cues to the restrictions. In the case of speed, it’s minimums and maximums (the “chains” counterpart on the low end is the “hook,” or stick shaker limit). In the case of altitude, same thing: level off or descent minimums, or climb level off points, or clean-up altitudes.

You don’t look “at” the HUD information, you look through it but incorporate the information as you go. I once counted all of the possible display symbology and counted nearly 60 pieces of information displayed. You could get lost trying to follow every piece of information, but the key is to just absorb whatever you can from the periphery as things change. Let’s put this into motion on an approach:

(note: the above is an embedded YouTube video. If your browser won’t animate it, just click here to watch)

Notice the slowly decreasing altitude on the righthand tape while the airspeed on the left remains stable. The radio altitude  is counting down near the center–obviously that’s important and so that information is near center of your focus and incidentally, near the touchdown point. The compass rose below the display shows the course track, but the only thing you care about is alignment–again, you’re simply maintaining symmetry by keeping that peripheral information lined up.

This video is slightly different from the 737-800 I fly in that there’s no “flare” cue in this depiction: that’s simply the word “flare” that anunciate above a line that appears indicating where to put the nose for a smooth touchdown. Also, the word “idle” annunciates to suggest when to remove power as the autothrottles pull back for touchdown.

The Flight Management System data-links in the runway data so the HUD target the touchdown accurately.

The Flight Management System data-links in the runway data so the HUD target the touchdown accurately.

The dot in the center of the aircraft symbol is the desired path, the symbol surrounding it–if you’re successful at keeping them aligned–is the “flight path vector,” a symbol indicating where the aircraft is aimed despite the apparent orientation. That is, in a crosswind, you may be canted 20 to 30 degrees to one side or the other, but the FPV shows where you’re actually headed.

This video stops at touchdown, but the HUD does not: when you select detail level 2 or 3 and the ILS antenna supports it, the HUD gives you a runway remaining countdown and centerline steering information–which can be very useful in low-visibility landings and take-offs :


At my airline, we fly the HUD to the lowest minimum certified, as opposed to other Cat 3 certified aircraft that “autoland.” We never autoland–rather, with the aid of the HUD, the captain hand-flys every minimum visibility approach. Now that I have over a thousand hours in the 737-800 left seat, yes, I’m a “HUD cripple”–and I wouldn’t have it any other way.


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