Archive for reality

Holiday Air Travel Tips 2012

Posted in air travel, airline, airline pilot blog, airliner with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 2, 2012 by Chris Manno

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This year we’re going to do the holiday air travel tips different, for one good reason: leisure fliers never do what airline industry insiders recommend. Don’t know why; maybe travelers already know everything, maybe they don’t care—maybe they just don’t like to be told what to do.

Regardless, since air travelers so often seem to do the exact opposite of whatever the airline industry recommends, here’s our new approach:

–Don’t prepare ahead of time. Nada—no collecting your travel info (flight numbers, departure times) in one handy place. Rather, have a bunch of papers with boarding passes, itineraries, receipts and even hand-scrawled notes, cram them into your bag somewhere and pull them out, act confused and look for someone (and there are PLENTY of airport staffers ready help you!) to untangle the mess for you. Much easier than having your act together and your travel information at your fingertips!

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–Bring your dog, and let the dog out of its kennel in the airport public areas! Everyone loves your dog, no one is allergic to your dog, and other dogs won’t react adversely to your taking “just a little break” out of the required carrier, on or off the plane, right? And do ignore whatever “business” it does on the floor because “It’s no big deal” and the airport has “people to handle that,” of course. So no one else in the airport could possibly worry about health hazards.

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–Don’t pack sensibly. In fact, just bring everything that fits into your suitcase—never mind sorting out liquids or cosmetics; those will be sorted for you by the TSA. That’s what the screening is for, and the passengers in line behind you aren’t in a rush to get on their flights anyway.

–Do not put your name inside your luggage! If you do, once the flimsy luggage tag is torn off, the airline will know who owns the suitcase, rather than sending it on a Disney-worthy odyssey to the Land of Lost Toys. You want that, don’t you?

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–Rely on the airlines for your basic caloric needs. Food has been plentiful on the airlines since about 1965, remember? So why shouldn’t you expect in the course of your 6 hours of travel that the airline will cater a meal for you? Don’t bring non-perishable snack for yourself and please, don’t bring water aboard the plane. Some nutty people actually have reusable water containers that they fill up after security, then bring them on board to ensure their own hydration. Crazy, right?

redneck–Dress like a bum or a heroin addict. That makes it seem natural to all the service personnel that you’ll encounter that you have high expectations, even with questionable taste and hygiene, and so they’ll be ready to work closely and cheerfully with you. Please wear your headphones, have your music jacked up so that when the Flight Attendants ask you if you’d like a beverage, you can say, “What?” for the thousandth time in their very long day.

–Once you board the aircraft, hog all of the overhead bin space near your seat. Realize when the flight attendants announce on the P.A., “Overhead bins are shared space—please place one small hand-carried article under the seat in front of you,” they don’t mean “you” as in you. Rather, it’s the “Smokey the Bear” type “you:” like only “you” can prevent forest fires,” which doesn’t mean you personally, right? That’s everyone but you—and they know it. Act like you don’t even hear the P.A. as other passengers struggle to get their items stowed.

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–Once your flight reaches your destination and parks at the gate, as soon as the seatbelt sign is turned off, do not remain comfortably seated. Rather, immediately jump up and either stand uncomfortably hunched over because of the overhead bin, or crowd into the aisle even though the door isn’t even open and you’re not going anywhere anyway until all of the passengers in front of you have gathered their belongings and moved up the aisle. Why wait? Cram yourself into the aisle.

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There, now you have the latest “do’s” and “don’ts” and it’s up to you to sort out one from the other. Hope this new way of passing the information registers in a useful way but regardless, when human nature takes over and the “me first” priority rules the day, at least you’ll have a tall tale about your awful trip to regale your friends with. Bon voyage!

Special Note: as of today, JetHead has had 300,915 visitors.

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Summer Storms, Airline Flight, and YOU as Captain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yup.

Sheppard Approach: “Plan runway 33 center.”

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

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

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

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

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

“We need 12,000.”

“No problem, taxi on down.”

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

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

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

Me signing for six tons of jet fuel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Flight of The Fatass.

Posted in air travel, airline cartoon, airliner, airlines, airport, cartoon, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, food, jet, jet flight, passenger with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 2, 2011 by Chris Manno

Couldn’t come at a worse time, when each cent spent on fuel strains the budget of every major airline. The fact is, a direct operating cost airlines cannot avoid is fuel usage, which is directly linked to the aircraft’s gross weight. Suddenly, there’s this:

That’s right: double-fudge brownie sundaes–in flight. Which brings us back to the jet’s take-off and climb gross weight. Seriously gross, in some cases.

Back in my Diesel-10 days, I flew with a giant of a captain who shall remain nameless but his initials are Big John. He must have tipped the scales close to three hundred pounds, and I admit, as a First Officer doing the flight control check, I’d purposely pull the yoke back far enough to jiggle his big gut (he’d say, “Whatcha tryin’ to do, boy, loop it?”) hanging over his lap belt.

The big mystery early in the month we flew together was why did Big John excuse himself from the cockpit at the top of descent point, for at least fifteen minutes? That’s right before we get really busy with descent and approach.

Mystery solved on our first layover: the “galley wench” (that’s the flight attendant who served below decks in the DC-10 lower lobe galley) said he was downstairs with her, hoovering any uneaten food from passenger meals that were left over.

Maybe that comes from the grand tradition of fat sea captains who had to keep themselves well-marbled to survive months bobbing around on a hostile ocean. You never know when you’re going to have to spend two seasons and an eternity of reruns on an uncharted desert isle.

You never know just how long a three hour tour is going to be, right? We were doing a lot of trans-oceanic stuff in the ten, so maybe John was planning to be the only guy surviving in a life raft.

Regardless, Big John was just one of a growing number–literally growing–pilots who over the span of a career, drove up the fuel burn of the airline as his career dragged on.

Why? Go back to the top of the page and face the brownie sundae–my weakness. Okay, I’ll come clean: I’m six feet tall and weight 182 pounds (today anyway), have finished nine of the 26.2 mile marathons, blah, blah, blah.  Point is, I do take part in the aerial hog call pretty regularly. A tour, you say? You’d like a tour? Prepare yourself.

First, there’s the big guns that announce themselves with a “ding” on the flight interphone: “Hey, we’ve got [insert uber-caloric dessert here] in back if you all want some.” Or, it just comes already on your crew meal. Either way, there’s this:

A dense chocolate cake-like pie. Sure, just eat a bite or two, right? You’ll run it off on the layover, right (in Toronto in January? YOU’RE LYING)? You missed lunch too, see, and this is okay therefore, mangia, right?.

Then there’s this:

Coming out of several Florida airline catering kitchens–it’s really decent Key Lime pie. Somebody actually recognized that Key Lime’s are just like any other limes–added for the citrus flavor for the pie, not the color–and it looks and tastes authentic. Probably about 800 calories, too.

I really like this meringue-ish type lemon pie too:

It’s kind of densely creamy with just the right amount of tartness. And another 900 calories, probably. Sometimes the dessert just looks so innocent sitting there on your tray, small and innocuous, looking up, suggesting hey–eat me.

But word gets out when the inflight menu changes: hey–the cheese cake’s back. Burp. And sure, the salad’s always a sensible choice . . .

. . . as long as you don’t chase down it with another fat bomb:

I’m less vulnerable to the cake, which often is dry enough to suck all of the moisture out of your already parched (from the 2% cabin humidity) body.

That and the hermetically sealed bread item could absorb a fuel spill of considerable magnitude. So I find those non-confectionary things easy to avoid. But then there’s the catering out of Mexico:

Always some type of pastry dessert that face it–you’re going to try some of it. And when you do, you’re stuffing all 900 calories into your pie hole.

So, you might well ask, why not just bring your own food? Right? Yeah, like that’s any better, like anyone could be trusted to manage that. Here’s just a couple of bad choices in that regard.

This is The World’s Most Dangerous Pastrami, slapped together lovingly (“Ey–we don’t got all day here, whaddya want?“) in the employee deli in La Garbage Airport, Flushing (is it just me or are these terms all appropriately suggestive?) New York.

Or The Long Haul Meathead Sandwich, good for at least two thousand miles:

But tofu’s healthy, right? Shut up:

Here’s the Blow Your Head Off spicy tofu, an O’Hare exclusive I can’t resist. The heartburn alone will keep you awake for at least a thousand miles, which is kind of the point.

Regardless of whether you bring your own food, the galley ovens are just on the other side of the cockpit door. When the aroma of freshly baked cookies finds it’s way forward, who are you kidding?

You’re eating them. yes, you can defend yourself from any smells . . .

But you’re not gonna avoid cookies, are you? And never mind in flight, what about the junk you bump into hanging out before the flight? Like the old faves stationed around the nation, waiting:

It’s the best breakfast burrito in the nation, waiting for you at a little shop in the Albuquerque airport. Perfect salsa, will light your hair on fire. And in the Portland Airport, “Good Dog Bad Dog,” with sausages you are going to eat no matter what.

Need a closer look? There’s a video look at “Good Dog-Bad Dog” on the bottom of this page. Go there, try one–you’ll be hooked, too. And speaking of dogs, back to basics in the Oklahoma City Airport–Sonic, headquartered in OKC, offers you the essential foot-long chili-cheese-onion dog right across from the gate for your convenience:

This is all leading to a very scary conclusion, fellow fliers: we are destroying the ozone needlessly because of the bulk–literally, the bulk–of those who must be hefted off the ground and into the stratosphere with the fossil fuel burn increase required to haul their fat asses airborne.

Don’t get too smug, either, if you’re not a big butt pilot–we’re only two of 165 butts on my airplane. Yeah, we notice–

The suitcase will fit under the seat–but what about fitting in the seat? Anyway, that’s what’s driving up fuel costs, along with the constant mayhem in the middle east, hurricane rumors near the Gulf, a flu outbreak at a refinery in Jersey–whatever. Those are things Al Gore says we can’t control. Eating in flight is quite another thing.

But actually, it doesn’t look like Big Al’s skipping any meals either. So let’s just forget it–this is The Land of Plenty, to fly across it is going to take plenty of fuel because of all of the plentious butts on board.

Flying is a tough business, in my experience. You deserve a trip to “Good Dog–Bad Dog” in order for fortify yourself for the journey. So click on the video below and enjoy an up close and personal visit to the place.

Me, I’m heading out for yet another long run. I’m personally too cowardly to follow in Big John’s gigantic footsteps–his heart exploded on a layover and he keeled over dead, face down in his angel hair Carabonara.

Bon appetit!

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Mach Speed Tumbleweed

Posted in air travel, airline delays, airliner, airlines, airport, flight attendant, flight crew, hotels, jet, layover, life, night, passenger, pilot, travel, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 19, 2011 by Chris Manno

A battle rages in silence. You don’t want to get involved–but you are, you realize slowly.

Exactly where is it 5am?

You don’t want to know.

No, I do. The sinking feeling. It’s not home, is it?

Told you you didn’t want to know.

Damn. Reno?

No, that was last night.

Montreal?

The night before.

Palm Beach. Not home. Home got away–again.

How many miles from here to home? Not distance–I get that–flown, I mean? How many more? Flight hours like matchsticks: light ’em off one by one, watch them burn down, then out. Slowly, in the glow, you get it: midway through a four day. Just what you didn’t want to wake to. But do.

So, that was last night: late, always, bone tired too from hotel sleep somewhere else.

That’s here, middle of the night here, before you messed it up. Spartan. Antiseptic. Do not disturb. A trail of clothes from the door to the bed–worry about everything else tomorrow.

Sleep, and it’s that dream again: you can find the gate, find the plane, but there’s no door from the gate to the plane. Which is the way home, of course. No way home–just the waiting place, halls of marked time and any old place.

Gertrude Stein nailed it: “there’s no there there,” in that space between places, the waiting–the island between going and getting there. Or getting home. There’s the irony: for those who make their living going, and carrying others who are on the way too, the idyll would be staying, not going, being home. No door.

So wake up then. Going to need goggles and a snorkel to wade through this one. Not the stuff you’ll think about later–the weather, the jet, the fuel. Rather, another day not home.

Good dog–you’re ready to swim in the deep blue.  People will ask you questions, like “What’s it like to be a trained dog working in the blue every day?” Or maybe they’ll have something equally inane more for each other than for you, like “we’ll let him on” or “we need him” as you try to slip by them going to the office. Funny stuff, right? More likely, though, they have to go to the bathroom; they want to share that with you, assuming you have a constant awareness of toilets and locations, like you do with bailout airfields and low fuel contingencies in flight, right? Funny stuff.

Just put all the pieces back together; everything back into the suitcase like the crammed heap that sprang out twelve hours ago. Kind of like behind the scenes Disney: Mickey puts on his fiberglass head with the permanent smile–then out he goes. Down to the lobby, out to the curb: vantastic! Off to whatever aeropuerto in whatever city.

Just get me to the gig. Snake through the masses herding across the wide-open plains, grazing, mooing; hoofbeats at a shuffle.

The ants go marching out again, hurrah. Step around, mind the Mickey head. Wind your way through; heft the bags, schlep the bags, onward to the gate. Show your ID: yeah, it’s Mickey. Let him on board.

Nothing purtier than precious metal, all eighty tons of her:

She’s your big ol’ dance partner, every song, every leg, and just like you: all about the getting there–but not staying. Folks trundle off, more trundle on; makes no difference. We do our same dance steps, carefully and deliberately without art. Over and over–same old song. You know the words:

We say Mass for the Earth, the litany of escape–then we leave, but everyone still in their pews, seatbelts on and tray tables stowed. Then the aluminum conga line–every-buddy-CON-ga– to the runway. This:

In this:

Into the blue, the higher the better: the sky is denim, comfy as jeans. Good for hanging out, soft, simple, warm, comfortable. The good feel when you put them on.

Unpressed and rumpled–doesn’t matter; a little faded, all the better. That’s cruising, ain’t it? It’s like Saturday against your skin. That’s the jailbreak from the suitcase–off with the polyester, and Mickey’s head; jeans, amen.

Soft and comfy as the sky and nearly as distant: nobody knows you without the Mickey head on, and that’s the best. You’re a ghost, anywhere, everywhere–somewhere where no one knows you, and in the middle of the night you won’t remember where anyway.

You just know what it’s not–home; and where it’s not–HOME. And just close your eyes because soon enough, once again: another passage. Sleep.

“. . . life is a watch or a vision

Between a sleep and a sleep.”

–Algernon Swinburne

Silver Wings Then Other Things: Part 3

Posted in air travel, airliner, airlines, airport, flight attendant, flight crew, jet, passenger, pilot, travel, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 9, 2011 by Chris Manno

This is Part 3 of the series putting you in the captain’s seat.

Want to start at the beginning? Click here.

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I love the smell of jet fuel in the morning.

Okay, maybe right before noon–I don’t bid early flights and since I’ve been here over 25 years, I don’t have to do the buttcrack of dawn flights anymore. But it all leads to the same place: ready for take-off.

And whether that’s your first solo or your most recent take-off line-up, it’s the best part of the world ever: nose pointed down the line, strapped in tight, slight bend at the knees so as to have easy rudder throw in either direction, holding brake pressure on top of the rudder pedals, waiting for release.

Calm. All the engine instruments are flat-lined like a comatose patient, breathing; heartbeat but not much else. Idle RPM on both the giant fan and the turbine.

These new jet engines are mechanical and technological marvels, gi-normous Swiss watch-like machines: tolerances to the thousandth of an inch, spinning at 30-50,000 RPM for hours, tirelessly, core temps averaging blast furnace heat all the while. Each engine weighs over two tons, but puts out 27,000 pounds of thrust, so with both at full power, you have 26 tons of thrust at your fingertips for take-off or whenever you need it.

The pair of CFM-56 engines will gulp down nearly a thousand gallons of jet fuel between take-off and level off, but the marvel is, even heavy-weight we’ll climb to 38,000 feet in about fifteen minutes.  That’s also attributable to the Boeing wing: they were wise enough to increase the size of the wing as they stretched the airframe. Not so with Douglas jets like the DC-9–they just added length to the fuselage and kept the original wing.

I like the feel of the fat, swept and cambered-up Boeing wing, which as a result of the lengthening has a lighter wing-loading than the stretched Douglas.

It just feels more stable and reliable both in the low-speed regime and almost more importantly, at altitude. So on take-off, there’s just a confidence you can bank on with the Boeing: it has power and lift to spare.

“Cleared for take-off” are the words you’re waiting for. Once you gang-bar the exterior lights, the First officer will call, “Before take-off checklist complete.”

You stand the throttles up and immediately, the CRT displaying engine instruments springs to life. The computers below the flight deck measure the throttle position and project where the RPM of both the giant fan and the subsequent rotors will be in a matter of seconds. They stabilize at 40%, then the actual rotor speed catches up as the engines snarl to life. Satisfied at 40%, I punch the take-off power button on the throttles and they move to the position that the engine computers say matches the temperature and the other parameters we programmed and will produce the thrust we’re expecting. I double check that they are within 2% of what I expect, then turn my eyes to the runway stretched out ahead.

It’s best to cast your eyes way down the runway so as to have a good peripheral awareness: engine failures will be most obvious from the initial yaw, plus, directional control at over a hundred miles per hour is best judged with a long view.

Now I’m steering with the rudder pedals, trying to just nudge the nosewheel–stay off the centerline lights with their annoying thumping–until between forty and seventy knots when the forty-foot tall rudder takes a good enough bite of the air to become effective at aerodynamic control.

“Eighty knots,” is the first callout, and it comes fast at take-off power. That’s the abort dividing line: up till eighty, I can consider aborting for various systems problems. After eighty, the abort response is different and because of the kinetic energy built up in our 70-ton freight train, stopping is much more critical a maneuver with serious consequences in terms of brake energy.

Plus, it’s not wise to try to arbitrate at over a hundred miles per hour whether a system indication stems from a failure that would affect our ability to stop: brakes, anti-skid, hydraulics, electrics.

That’s why I’m relieved when the aircraft announces “V1.” That means we’re beyond abort speed–and I’m thinking only of flying, even on just one engine if need be.

Almost immediately, the First Officer calls,”Rotate” and I ease the yoke back gently. Have to let the 737 fly off  and get some tail clearance from the pavement before smoothly rotating the nose up to take-off pitch, which is shown in my heads-up display (HUD). Off we go.

When I see vertical velocity climbing in the HUD, plus increasing radio altitude numbers, I simultaneously give the hand signal  (flat open right palm moving up) and say, “Positive rate–gear up.” The hand signal is in case my voice is blocked by radio chatter or other extraneous noise.

The HUD’s also showing me the energy building on the wing, plus the speed trend. Call for the flaps up before the limit speed, engage vertical navigation (“V-Nav”) at 2500 feet. Track the departure outbound, centering up the radial. I sneak peaks down from the HUD to the Nav display so as to anticipate the turns ahead. Roll into the turns easy–the 737 flies really tight and responsive–and carve out a smooth arc.

First milestone: ten thousand feet. Roll in some nose-down trim so as to accelerate beyond the 10,000′ limit of 250 knots. A quick check to be sure that the cabin is climbing and that fuel is flowing properly: above 10,000′ we can burn center tank fuel if we didn’t on take-off or if there was less than 5,000 pounds at take-off; less than 3,000 pounds now and you reach up and open the fuel crossfeed manifold and turn off the aft fuel boost pump.

Eyes back on the road. Trim. Smoothness. Coffee.

Before you know it, the chronometer says around 18 minutes elapsed time and the altimeter reads 40,000 feet. Trim it up, level and smooth, trim out any yaw, engage the number 1 autopilot. Check the fuel burn, the fuel flow and the quantity. Cabin pressure stable at the correct differential value. Nav tracking properly. Cool: we’re cruising.

So now, here’s you:

No, not just punching the time clock–counting fuel flow, measuring miles remaining against fuel and miles per minute. Print the uplink of the destination weather. Was your forecast correct? No, you didn’t do the weather forecast–you predicted what fuel you’d need on arrival for the approach in use. Kind of glad to have a little extra in the hip pocket, right? Conservative fuel planning.

Note the climb point and more importantly, the gross weight where that can occur. Pay attention; note when it arrives early and use it: tailwinds or headwinds shift the point, but track the weight.

Now it’s time for the P.A. Nobody cares or pays attention–especially the flight attendants who will ask “what’s our ETA” even though you just announced it. Whatever. It’s always partly cloudy, make up a temperature, read off the latest ETA, “glad to have you flying with us today; for now, sit back, relax” blah-blah blah, get ready for the approach.

Uplinked destination weather.

You know the arrival winds. You got the uplinked current weather and terminal information. Set up the approach in the course windows and frequency selectors. Yes, it can change while you’re enroute, but now is the time to set up the approach and get it straight in your head.

There’s the art in what you do: translate this schematic into three dimensional movement in pitch, bank and roll. Each approach has its own peculiarities–so start thinking it through now.

Meanwhile, however, just a constant flow of navigation, fuel flow and performance considerations. Keeping a fuel and navigation log, constant contact with Air Traffic Control:

That and maybe some of the catering from First Class provisioned as “Crew meals.”

The best catering of breads and desserts is out of Mexico and Canada, I think. But at any rate, it’s probably good to stay “calorized”  as a survival tool: time changes, sleep disruptions, long hours, extremes of climate and especially the prolonged hours in a low-humidity cabin–it all takes a toll, physically. And flight crews work in that realm week after week. At least you can buttress your health with the caloric energy you need. It’s not always available between flights.

Manage the fuel. Weather radar and traffic watch. Ride and wind reports, both from other aircraft and uplinked from our Ops center. navigation–course modifications, shortcuts, direct clearances, higher altitudes when we’ve burned off enough fuel.

So it goes for hours on end.

The nav systems are plotting a descent already. They have drawn an imaginary line from altitude to our destination and I can see constantly the angle and the rate of descent changing as we draw nearer. I’m going to induce the descent–with ATC clearance, of course–a little early, maybe fifteen miles or so depending on winds, to make the descent a little flatter and more comfortable in the cabin. Besides, the automation doesn’t account for ATC restrictions added to those already published. Let’s get ahead of the game.

HEFOE Check: Hydraulics, electrics, fuel, oxygen, engines; periodic checks, the mantra from the Air Force days–nostalgic, but appropriate still in an airliner at the top of descent. Which, I’ve decided in my mental picture of the descent angles, distances, speeds and times, is now.

“Tell them we’d like lower,” I say to the First Officer. He nods, instinctively aware that it’s about time to start our descent. This is where passengers in the cabin notice the slight decrease in engine noise and a bit of a nose-down tilt.

The shoulder harness come back on in the cockpit; headsets replace overhead speakers and boom mikes take over from the hand mikes. Approach plates are reviewed on more time; crossing altitudes and speeds, intercepts and radials. This is the fun part: translate the myriad of plotted out instructions into a graceful series of maneuvers culminating with a safe touchdown, then dissipating the kinetic energy of sixty tons thundering down the runway at about one hundred and sixty miles an hour, bringing the whole remarkable aircraft to walking speed, then to a gentle stop at the gate. Piece of cake.

Next week, Part 4: the approach and landing.

Silver Wings, Then Other Things: Part 2.

Posted in air travel, airliner, airlines, airport, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, flight delays, jet, passenger, pilot, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 4, 2011 by Chris Manno

This is part 2 of a multi-part series putting you in the captain’s seat. Want to start with Part 1? Click here.

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Flight plan? Got it. Fuel load? Fine. Take-off data? Got that too. The ten-yard-long printout of notices and info and weather affecting our flight and route? Folded accordian style. Cup of McDonald’s coffee, black? In the cupholder by your right knee.

Something about that: a simple pleasure, that black coffee, plus an opportunity to make a donation to the Ronald McDonald House at the counter every time. I like the idea of doing something good for kids every time I pass by McD’s in the airport.

But also, in “the bubble,” it’s a cool luxury: taxiing out, steering with feet on the rudder pedals, minimal and exact responses to the required challenge-and-response checklist read by the First Officer–and sipping my coffee. The jet feels loaded up; weighty. You can feel the 112 feet of wing out there, the 40 foot tall rudder buffeted by gusts. Definitely an airship lumbering on the ground. Radios and official responses; taxi clearances and I say “okay” as soon as they’re given so my F/O knows I heard and understand.

Other than that and the radio chatter, silence. Because I don’t want anything on the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) except for official, flight-related verbiage. There’s too much that could get screwed up, too much that needs to be checked before take-off to allow a layer of distraction. Plus, it’s the official policy: “sterile cockpit” below 10,000 feet. That is, no non-flight related talk, period. Saves the bubble, the concentration, for important stuff.

Sterile Cockpit.

Because here’s the problem with advanced flight automation: an input error, left undetected, can have disastrous consequences. A keystroke error can lead to faulty flight guidance commands, from the basics of pitch and bank to the routing errors. The only hedge against the hazard is diligent checking of all input. We did the route check at the gate, remember? Now we verify that the data-linked upload and our own inputs are valid: gross weight, center of gravity, fuel weight, take-off and abort speeds, climb speeds, every number associated with performance. That’s as we’re rolling, and as I’m ensuring we don’t violate anyone’s taxiway or runway space, steering with my feet–sipping my coffee, of course.

Ready for your eye test? "Give way to an RJ on Charlie, then taxi east on Bravo, short of Charlie 3."

Several numbers you must see, every time, before take-off–it’s not enough to have the First Officer read them aloud (“We planned 155,000 pounds, we’re actually 156,500 pounds . . .”). I will physically view the data-linked final weight numbers, I’ve already written the planned weight on my side panel clipboard as a reference, and I HAVE to see the correct number on the Control Display Unit screen. And at the same time, not taxi into the dirt or worse, any other jet. Not so easy at night.

But no worries–if it gets too hectic, timeout: “Let’s hold on the checklist here till we’re stopped.” Ever wonder why there’s a delay before take-off? While other jets are coming and going? Often, this is why. After leaving the gate, I’m completely detached from schedule constraints–we’ll get airborne as soon as all checks are thoroughly and correctly performed. As I tell F/Os when the tendency to rush starts to rear its ugly head, “We don’t get paid to rush. And if anything goes wrong as a result of rushing, no one’s going to be there to bail your ass out.”

Here’s where I like the silence, the bubble: no extraneous concerns beyond this flight. A departure path clear of weather and traffic. Verified speeds and weights in the flight guidance system, so the pitch and bank commands will be valid. But if they’re not, a mental review of what I know are the limits: greater than nine degrees of pitch up will drag the tail on the runway. Doesn’t matter what the flight guidance commands, my hands will not exceed a limit.

Waiting. Quick mental review of high-speed abort items: fire, failure, fear or shear. That is, after 80 knots, only an engine fire or failure, or my split-second judgment that I “fear” the aircraft is structurally not airworthy, or a detected windshear will cause me to abort the take-off before max abort speed, and after that–we’re flying with whatever we have.

I have options a hundred miles down the road, but also for liftoff: best single-engine climb angle, if we need it; left downwind to land south if we do. McChord 20 miles south with lots of runway. Fire and failure litanies. Mt. Ranier, all 14,410 feet of her, and where she is at all times.

Got it? 165 others are assuming that you do–so you’d better.

“American 116, line up and wait.” The tower’s direction. Real quiet now. Last minute runway checklist items. Ease in the power–there may be smaller jets behind us. Swing wide, line up on the center stripe; hold the brakes. Fire, failure, fear or shear. Minimum safe altitude. Engine failure profile. Initial level off altitude. No other thoughts. And no worries–this is gonna be fun.

Departure path is clear. “American 1116, cleared for take-off, runway one-six, wind one-five-zero at ten.”

“Rolling on one-six, American 1116.” All exterior lights on.  Another swig of java–we’ll get back to it on climb out–stand the throttles up; gages spring forward, then toggle take-off power on the autothrottles, hack the elapsed time button on the chronometer.

Both engines growl to take-off power–love that feel as they bite the air, compress it, mix in jet fuel and burn it, shoving us forward. Fifteen hundred miles to DFW–let’s get airborne.

Next Post: Part 3, enroute, and the landing.

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Silver Wings, Then Other Things: Part 1.

Posted in air travel, airline cartoon, airliner, airlines, airport, cartoon, flight attendant, flight crew, jet, passenger, pilot with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 29, 2011 by Chris Manno

It always starts with the wings.

They go on the shirt first–don’t ask me why, tradition, superstition. Maybe it’s just transition: the next thing that goes into the left breast pocket is the laminated pix of the family. It’s the “leaving behind”–the part I hate about flying–but then not really, because they’re there all the time, both figuratively and literally next to my heart. Hate the leaving behind, but also embrace it: you leave concerns on the ground, not as a palliative, but rather because you have other things that need to be 100% in the forefront of your mind.

Picked that handy habit up from skydiving in college: you acknowledge what might be a little unsettling–you will deliberately step into nothingness 2,000 feet up, tumble like a rag doll (be patient) till you regain control, plunging straight down–because you need to be completely focused on what matters in the air. Acknowledge it, then leave it on the ground where it belongs.

Same deal now. Clear your mind because you can’t have a lot of drag on your attention when you’re hurtling through the sky. Epaulets next–need to throw those in the wash, they’re getting dirty from the shoulder straps resting on them in the cockpit–then we’re good to go.

Leaving is always such a downer for me. I like my life, home, family–“the road” as a crewmember is solitude, anonymous hotel rooms; airports, waiting, then periods of intense concentration on details you’ve done a million times, but they have to be done perfectly each time.

A recent ATSA study showed that over one third of all airline accidents occur in the take-off phase of flight, even though that phase accounts for less than 10% of an aircraft’s flight time. What that means is beyond the aircraft being at the lowest end of its performance regime in speed and maneuverability, mistakes in calculations and automation input errors of those performance numbers becomes an immediately dangerous situation as you try to lift off. So the painstaking crosschecks before take-off must be thoroughly painstaking each and every time, no matter what the hour or how tired you are.

Driving to the airport, you can and should actually pay attention to the sky: south wind, they’re landing south; that’ll be a different clearance and since we’re going north today, an extra few minutes. Those are fair weather clouds, must be high pressure; hope it holds through tomorrow. See? Your head’s in the game, you’ve left home–because you have to.

I stay in a bubble from then on, a little withdrawn by choice. Not engaged in anything social, although yeah, I can be glad to see an old friend or say hello. But I like the bubble of isolation so I can save the peace as a backdrop for the work that is to come.

Now comes the first of a bunch of decisions. The route today–why this one? Seems kind of north-ish for our destination. Look further: winds aloft, rides, turbulence. But how old is this wind data? I have a hunch it’s out of date at this late hour–there’s seniority, I don’t do the early morning stuff–and there’s a good chance that the higher altitudes have settled down. Still, I’ll take the additional fuel and if we can cruise higher, we’ll be fat at the destination. Because in my little pilot brain, the only time you can have too much fuel is when you’re on fire.

Flight Operations, below the DFW terminal.

Happy with the route? The fuel load? If not, a simple call to Flight Dispatch and it’s done. Check out the weather radar, first in Ops, but then right before stepping onto the plane on the iPhone app, “My Radar:” you can see the entire route of flight and the radar image of whatever’s going to be in your way.

Pushback’s in an hour–let’s not be too hasty here. No need to get on board and sit. The First Officer’s already there, doing the exterior preflight, then he’ll be doing the cockpit set-up. Better to stay out of the way, and to preserve the bubble as long as possible: just flight-related stuff now.

Lot’s of folks have been busy while you’re doing your preflight ritual. The cabin is usually a wreck from the inbound passengers, plus all of the catering has to be removed, then the new flight catering put into both galleys.

And there’s the periodic maintenance of the jet that needs to be done: required systems checks, some top off of oil and hydraulic fluid if noted by the inbound crew.

Time for a last call home to Darling Bride. She knows the drill, having been a flight attendant for 12 years: yes, you get to ‘travel,” woo-hoo, but it’s not like vacation travel. It’s more like being restricted: you don’t have your stuff, can’t do just what you want, and road slop–whatever you can forage at restaurants and the like–is the diet for three days.

Get that McDonald’s coffee now. That’s right, I like McD’s java, and now it’s a ritual. Sure, the number one flight attendant will make coffee if I ask when I board. But why board asking for stuff? Eighteen First Class passengers will be asking for stuff soon enough. Speaking of the number one, remember the first name. The number one takes care of the flight deck; the least you can do is say “please” and “thank you, [first name].” And maybe a cartoon on the flight info sheet.

Show your ID to the gate agents; “Yes, I’m the captain, let me know if I can help you with anything,” then board, squeezing past the passengers, one of whom will say something inane like “We’ll let you by, we need you” (gee thanks) or the like, but preserve the bubble, say nothing–except maybe “excuse me.”

Set up the “nest:” comm cords and headset plugged in, audio channels (flight interphone and PA only till taxi out), adjust the rudder pedals, then the seat height.

Your "cubicle."

Now the painstaking part: glass to paper. That is, the copilot will read off of “the glass” (the display unit for the nav system) all of the route points for the departure, enroute and arrival. They’ve been data-linked to the aircraft, now he’ll read off what the aircraft has and I’ll compare it to the paper flight plan, plus the ATC clearance which has also been sent to us via data link. Verify that it all matches up.

Ditto the performance numbers in the flight management computers: correct gross weight, center of gravity, temperatures, power selection, bleed configuration, cargo, passenger and  fuel weights. Did you read the ATSB article I linked above? It tells of a 747 crew in the middle east recently who input the gross weight as 300-and-some thousand when the “3” was supposed to have been a “5,” meaning the aircraft actually weighed 200,000 more than it was set up for–and no one in the cockpit noticed the typo. They all died.

Painstaking, tedious–every time, exactly correct. Do you “get” the bubble now? In the Air Force, most folks gave up trying to “chat” with me during pre-flight, for the same reason.

Then as now, as before jumping out of an airplane–leave all the chit-chat behind. There’s other stuff to think about and no clutter is better. As a buddy of mine said when we were brand new captains, “This ain’t a popularity contest.”

Preflight complete, catering off the aircraft, passengers seated, bags stowed, flight attendants ready and finally, the agent pokes her head in the flight deck doorway. “All set, Captain? Okay to close the door?” Me; “Yes ma’am, and thanks.” Ker-THUNK–that’s the entry door closing. Then “cabin ready,one-sixty, four flight attendants” from the number one. They want to be sure in an emergency evacuation you know how many of your crew to account for. That’s your job–accounting for everyone at all times: 160 passengers, 6 crew. Whump–that’s the armor-plated cockpit door sealed shut. “Souls on board,” which is the standard emergency info: 166.

Ah, now we’re on our own–just the way I like it. Full jet, full fuel load, ready to fly. My favorite time in the work day: the good part’s dead ahead: let’s go fly.

Coming next: Part 2, the take-off and more.

The jetbridge is gone, and we're on our own--at last.

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