Archive for storm

Airliners in Weather: What the Hail?

Posted in air travel, airline cartoon, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airline safety, aviation weather with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 13, 2015 by Chris Manno


Recently, a Boeing 787 and an Airbus 320 made headlines with dramatic photos of hail damage to the radomes and leading edges of the airfoils. That type of news story prompts the question from friends, family and passengers, “Can’t pilots see hail coming?”

My answer is threefold: yes, no, and it’s not that simple. Let’s take each part in order.


On a normal flight, the above outside view would be depicted like this on a cockpit nav display:


The magenta line is our filed flight path–where Air Traffic Control (ATC) expects us to be. To simplify for the sake of brevity, green areas are precipitation, red, convection, meaning uplifting air.

So yes, we can often see it coming because we know that convection can heave massive amounts of moisture upward with great force, into altitudes where the temperature could easily be -35C or less. This flash-freezes the moisture into ice pellets, with the size determined by variables of speed and temperature. I’ve felt and heard the sizzling sound of such particles impinging on my aircraft at over 40,000 feet–they’re fairly tiny and mostly innocuous at high altitude–not so in the lower, denser air.

Regardless, here’s where the “no” of my tripartite answer comes in. Like the ill-advised New Year’s Eve tradition some gun owners have of celebratory fire, what goes straight up comes back down–but the question is, where?

An enormous volume of hail spewed from the top of a thunderhead will get caught up in the winds aloft and they vary from near zero to over 100 mph. It’s not unusual for wind to blow a hail storm ten or more miles from the core of the thunderhead that lifted the moisture in the first place.

At night, the lightning may be obvious, but storm contours are not.

At night, the lightning may be obvious, but storm contours are not.

Can an you see that on radar? Maybe. Normally, you have the radar looking ahead, not up. What was a clear path, suddenly may be filled with hail, even miles away from the original source.

Which brings me to “it’s not that simple.” Both of the recent hail damage incidents occurred at low altitude, and by that I mean below 20,000 feet, which is a complicated area: jetliners don’t cruise that low, so the airspace is filled with a conflicting mix of climbing and descending aircraft. ATC does a fantastic job of sorting the mix crammed into often constrained airspace. But the problem is, that doesn’t leave much room for deviating around weather.


In fact, with so many aircraft being managed on a particular frequency, it’s extremely difficult to even get a course change request to ATC. Add to that a ground speed often between 200 and 300 miles per hour and you have a dilemma: yes, you can see some weather threats, no, you can’t see all of them and avoiding weather and other jets in crowded airspace is simply put, not easy. Things change rapidly, virtually by the minute, and we’ll cover many miles in that time.

I can’t stress enough how versatile and responsive ATC is in managing tight airspace filled with dissimilar aircraft on assorted routes and changing altitudes. But as the mix becomes more dense, this high-speed Rubik’s becomes an outlandishly devilish puzzle.

In the cockpit, know that we’re using every means at our disposal to detect and track weather. We gauge the wind effect out of the top of a storm, we plot a course upwind of effects, we pass along what we’ve found to ATC and other aircraft.  Count on the reality that everyone on the ground and in the air is doing everything possible to avoid or, in the worst case, escape from bad weather.

Even the fact that only two aircraft out of the thousands in flight that day made the news with hail damage is good news in itself: pilots and ATC are pretty good at handling weather. Still, there’s only so much room and little leeway to detect and avoid hail.


That’s the real news, and the good news far outweighs the bad: flying to Philly yesterday, I can’t compliment both ATC and the dozens of other pilots in the air for sharing information about clear passages, turbulence and new routings. I don’t know how Center and Approach do it, but the responsiveness and quick reaction is amazing.

I’m especially grateful that my airline has made installation of cutting edge radar technology in my cockpit a priority: yes, it’s expensive, but they want me to have the best, most current weather picture as I approach a front with you on board.

Our newest radar–which I’m glad to have available–displays three dimensions, is linked to our nav system so it always knows exactly where it is and thus screens out ground clutter and geographic features, and displays a predictive movement of hazards. It’s always on, scanning for potential problems and will pop up on cockpit displays if it detects something even if we’ve selected another depiction.

So there you have it. Yes, no, and it’s complicated–those are my answers to the question, “Can’t you see hail from the cockpit?” The big-picture view is that we’re all working together to stay out of the headlines. I’ll be flying to LaGuardia and back tomorrow and the fact that you WON’T read about my flight underscores everything I’ve just said.



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.


Breadcrumbs in the Jetstream.

Posted in air travel, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, weather with tags , , , , , , , on February 22, 2013 by Chris Manno

Used to be that in your first few hours of acrobatic flying that you had to consider how a meal would taste not only going down–but also coming back up later. Never, ever forget or underestimate the return trip.


Just like scout camp: on the way out, remember that tree, the rock formation–picture how it’s going to look coming back on your way home. So flying eastbound, you keep in mind everything germane to your westbound return.

Isobars in the back of your head as you’re outbound. Big kink in the jet stream over Arkansas, and you know what that means: lesser wave to surf eastbound, but lesser tide to buck flying west. But you can already tell what’s going on after about thirty minutes of flight. As you expected, the big dip pivots over Arkansas where it’s mixing Gulf moisture gathered from the south with the coldest air from the north.

tstm day

Messy. But no worries eastbound–we’ll top it, for now. Other eastbounders won’t and it doesn’t hurt to pass the word back: looking better toward Walnut Ridge outbound to the northeast. The moisture’s making its stand here in southern Arkansas and looks to be planning to stick around. The kink in the jetstream isn’t going to sheer off the tops because it’s weaker–100 knots versus 150-160–when it courses straight out of the west.

Which means, for our return leg, bet we’ll need the southern arrival while this troubled air mass beats up the northeastern cornerpost into DFW. And since we can see that the jetstream velocity is less, no real problem coming back high in the 40,000 foot range instead of ducking under.

bug eye cockpit

Air Traffic Control relays the National Weather Service warning that already rolled off the datalink printer in hard copy: level 3 thunderstorms with hail and possible tornadoes over Texarkana. Which is right below us. And no kidding–our radar shows the hook-like purple edge that I’m sure we’ll read about in the morning paper: somebody seven miles below is looking at a wall of towering cumulus and likely, a twister screwing itself into the earth west to east.

But it’s all quiet up here. Ground stuff, groundling speed and flying dirt mean nothing at altitude–but the whole ugly mess gets stored away for future reference westbound. Which starts on the ground in the east.

fueling 2

The old trusty Farmer’s Almanac of the sky thinking, the intangible notion my friend and the ultimate aviator Randy Sohn like to call “salt,” and I hope is “air sense:” no delays outbound, no crimp in the airway from planes deviating south. We’ll approach from the south, but will plan for at least one big reroute within the last 200 miles because the mess over Arkansas isn’t dissipating no matter what the National Weather Service predicts.  So here’s the fuel load that will work–ain’t what the system planned,  but it’s what I want. And what we’ll get.

Hours later, at 38,000 feet, the change comes: “Fly direct Little Rock for the arrival.” What? Could the ugly mess be moving south, and that fast?

tstm lit 2

Here’s the direct Little Rock view: is it really moving south fast enough to justify the extra mile to double back to the north? If not, we’re throwing ourselves into it with fuel we don’t want to waste. If so, who’s not glad we have extra fuel on board? Thank you Farmer’s Air Almanac brain and Randy’s salt, we have the burn available–because the thunderbumper gang is moving like a freight train. Here’s a picture five minutes later and the storm has raked itself ten miles south:

tstm lit 1

Remember, we’re just looking at the tops, radar auto-tilting down, and the ridge of thunderstorms is thundering like the mounted cavalry across central Arkansas, slashing and burning like Sherman on the march. We have plenty of cruise fuel and again, a silent, smooth ride high above the fistfight of Gulf moisture and the northern jetstream. Ringside seats. Quiet, smooth ride. Follow the breadcumbs, leavened with salt. Amen.

arkansas storms

That didn’t end well at the surface. But, that’s why we try to pass so quietly above. And why no one on board is any worse for the wear or wiser for the passage. Which is why we fly jets in the first place, right?

cockpit night 2

Airport Smackdown: Jethead vs. LaGarbage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Board 160 passengers. Preflight. Taxi out. Climb.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, the elephant walk to the gate. Park.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tower calls the winds “130 at 18.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slowing, getting dirty. Left sweeping turn.

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

“Affirmative,” you answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We fist bump, he leaves.

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

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

Summer Storms, Airline Flight, and YOU as Captain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sheppard Approach: “Plan runway 33 center.”

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

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

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

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

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

“We need 12,000.”

“No problem, taxi on down.”

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

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

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

Me signing for six tons of jet fuel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Airways crammed into the east and northeast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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