Archive for the life of an airline pilot

Airline PAs: Can we talk?

Posted in air travel, air traveler, airline, airline cartoon, airline cartoon book, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, flight crew with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 7, 2015 by Chris Manno

About the aircraft PA: let’s talk.


When you’re an airline captain, you have to figure out how to talk meaningfully and concisely to a hundred or so passengers over the aircraft PA. That virtually one-on-one contact is an excellent opportunity reassure and inform the paying customers as they experience the marquee product: air travel.

Yet so many captains fall short, squandering this excellent marketing opportunity. Here’s what I mean.

Mostly, we’re pilots first and foremost, so we’ve had little training or experience addressing the public. You can almost hear the discomfort from the first PA on taxi-out. Typically, it’s a clumsy version of “Welcome aboard [insert airline] flight [insert number], service to [insert destination]. We are next for departure ….”

Really? Departure? We’re going to takeoff and fly; you’re the pilot, the aviator, not the “departure facilitator,” who will make this happen. “Departure,” “service” and “equipment” (pilots fly jets) are all lame parroting of the agents’ PAs in the terminal. The agents aren’t aviators–are you? Or are you an “equipment operator?”

Some of my four-stripe colleagues allege that the circumspect term “departure” is more calming for passengers, but I ask to what end, when the next thing that happens is the roar of fifty-thousand pounds of jet thrust and a headlong hurtle down the runway. Did you fool anybody, for a minute or two?

And the first part: passengers know their destination–or if they don’t, maybe you shouldn’t tell them. Do they care about the flight number? Worst of all, “service?” As in “check under the hood, the washer fluid’s low?” Scratch the whole thing and get back to fundamentals.
On taxi out, I say the required, “Flight attendants, prepare for takeoff.” By the book, it is what it is. On climbout, I say, “Good afternoon (or whatever it is; I don’t do early mornings without a court order) and welcome aboard, this is Captain Manno.”

Not ever, “This is your captain speaking.” Because I have a name, and it’s not “Your Captain.” Would it seem awkward if your dentist said, “This is your dentist speaking?” Your teacher? On TV, airline captains don’t have a name, because it’s fake. Real life, real name.


The other awkward introduction on the PA is the blurted, “From the cockpit,” usually preceded by “ah,” as in “Ahhhhh, from the cockpit, folks …” Maybe I could see, “from the cockpit crew,” but that’s as disjointed as “from your dentist” or even a sermon that started out, “Ah, from the pulpit, folks …”

Probably I’m a cynic, but the used car salesman-ish, “A very pleasant good day” rankles as a PA intro. Just give me the facts and I’ll decide what kind of day it is, okay?

Enroute, the pilot jargon is clumsy: “We’re at three-nine-oh, going to four-one-oh.” Just spit it out: “We’re climbing to forty-one thousand feet.” So it goes without saying that you needn’t use the slang of “wheels up time” (really? Hope we’re off the ground) or even “ground stop;” passengers start forming their own expectation of how long until take-off (not departure–we already left the gate) which may vary from the simple facts you could have cited: “We estimate that we’ll be airborne in approximately _____ minutes, although that may change. We’ll keep you informed.”


And then I set a timer for 15 minutes, then make an update PA even if I have no new info. Just the basic contact, “We’re estimating ____more minutes, thanks for your patience, we’ll keep you posted.”

But god forbid, neither humor or sarcasm is smart, although some try. The problem is, anything that’s “funny” to one person is guaranteed to anger or offend one of the other 170 on board, especially when they’re under travel stress and unhappy about the inevitable delays, the crowding, the discomfort. I know that when I deadhead or fly on my days off that delays screw me into the ceiling–“comedy,” or any attempt, is just one more annoyance on top of many. So just stick to the facts, in a calm voice, and be sure to make regular contact.

When I’m in the passenger cabin listening to a PA, I’m the “Wizard of Ahhhs,” counting: after the third “ah,” passengers might wonder if you’re all there–and you’re probably not. If you are trying to listen to the air traffic control frequency and the emergency radio frequency as you make a PA, you’ll sound like the harried mom with a toddler squawking, the TV on, while trying to talk on the phone.
Give the route of flight in layman’s terms: “Pocket City” is aviation speak for Evansville, Indiana, where billiards are made, but will that mean anything to passengers? And please don’t end with the withering “and on into the ______ airport;” the double preposition will cause an aneurysm in anyone over fifty, plus it makes you sound like Gomer Pyle. Toggle down all the other audio channels and just give the facts, concisely, consistently and without ahhhhs.

My standard PA goes like this: “We’re heading just about due [east, west, whatever] and we’ll pass over _____, _______, ________, and _______ where we’ll begin our descent into _______ airport, where the skies are partly cloudy [I always say that, covers everything] and the temperature is [I make up something, what it think it should be–who’s checking?]. We’re estimating our touchdown at _______ [correct time zone] and we’ll have you to the gate a few minutes after that. We’re glad to have you on board, for now we invite you to relax and enjoy the flight.”

That’s it–no ahhhs, my name instead of my job title (your captain), no cutesy (we had a goofball who blew a train whistle on the PA and said, “Allllll aboarrrd!”) stuff and no comedy attempts that will eventually boomerang.
The captive audience is listening and it’s a tough house: they’re crammed into their seats, often jetlagged, tired, hungry and impatient with delays and just the general hassle that is air travel today. You’re not playing a movie role, recasting your remembrance of Hollywood depictions. Make it clear, concise and soft spoken. With any luck, they won’t remember you or anything you said the next day.

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.



Airliners vs. Drones: Calm Down.

Posted in air travel, air travel humor, aircraft maintenance, airline, airline cartoon, airline cartoon book, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airline safety, airliner with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 8, 2015 by Chris Manno


Much ado has been produced by the media about the hazards of drones flying in proximity to airliners, but I’m happy to report: it’s much ado about nothing.

The hazard presented by unwanted objects in an aircraft’s flight path is nothing new. In fact, each year hundreds of bird strikes are dutifully and without fanfare reported by airline pilots as is required by law.


What’s new is the opportunity for media and aviation “pundits” to claim more screaming headlines by overstating the drone hazard. First, consider the typical, average weight of the plentiful waterfowl populating the bird sanctuaries neighboring JFK, LGA, ORD, DFW, SEA, PDX, LAX, SAN, DCA, SFO, BOS and most Florida airports to name but a few. The weight varies from the 10-13 pound goose to the heavier seabirds like pelican which can weigh up to 30 pounds.

Although the the media and some wannabe aviation pundits claim there are “drones of 50-60 pounds,” the fact is, the new, popular hobbyist drones are marvels of lightweight miniaturization, weighing a fraction of that.


Now, consider the exposure: while the new hobbyist drones begin to enjoy an increasing level of retail sales, the bird hazard numbers literally in the millions. By sheer numbers alone, bird conflicts and even bird strikes dwarf the number of drone “sightings” by airliners, but they’re simply no longer news.

Plainly stated, the traveling public–and thus the media–understand the exposure, accept it, and like the National Highway Traffic Safety traffic death toll, ignore it.

Trundle out the “new menace” of drones and heads turn, headlines accrue, news ratings uptick, and those who know little about jetliners begin to smell fear.

So let’s even go beyond the hazard and foresee and actual impact with a drone. I once flew from Pittsburgh to DFW with duck guts splattered all over my cockpit windscreen after hitting what maintenance technicians estimated to be a ten pound duck. There were two primary consequences I had to deal with.

What are the chances of encountering a drone? A duck?

What are the chances of encountering a drone? A duck?

First, I had to look through duck guts for two and a half hours. They partially slid off, but most froze onto the window at altitude and stayed. Second, the crew meal enroute was less appetizing with the backdrop of frozen duck guts. That’s it.

None of the birds went into either engine. No aircraft systems were affected. Nobody (besides Pittsburgh tower) knew until after landing when we filed the required reports.

This is a pretty good predictor of what might happen if the rare, statistically minute chance of a drone-aircraft collision were to occur: likely, nada.


Yes, there always the potential for engine damage when a “bird,” man made or real, is ingested by an engine. Nonetheless, of all the birds–man made or real–populating the skies around every major airport, drones are a minuscule fraction of the whole group that air travelers sensibly overlook day to day.

So why not focus on that reality rather than the shrieking media and aviation “experts” offering unlikely and often, absurd “what ifs?”


The answer is, the latter sells news, while the former undercuts the self-appointed aviation experts in and out of the media.

So the choice is yours. You can embrace the misguided drone hysteria served up by the news and “experts,” or apply the same logic you do to every daily hazard–including the drive to the airport (over 32,000 traffic deaths in 2014)–which is: drive carefully, and don’t sweat the small stuff.

Anything else is much ado about nothing.





Little Boeing, Big Life.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline cartoon, airline industry, airline passenger with tags , , , , , , on June 9, 2015 by Chris Manno



There’s an ego thing between airline pilots; that’s just a fact of life among those who spend their lives flying jets. Within the pilot community, we virtually “are” the jets we fly and even more so, the position we fly: from the mega-hour first officer to the new guy; the newly minted captain to the veteran with more than twenty years wearing four stripes.

It doesn’t end there either: there’s the heavy metal, the widebody 777 and 787 flying longhaul, continent to continent–Europe, Asia, South America, 14 to 18 hours aloft. That’s the career apex in airline world–at least for some pilots.

And sure, I’d always seen it that way, coming up. But after three decades in an airline cockpit–most of that as captain (I think 24 of 30 years qualifies as “most”), I see it differently. Beyond the ego surfing of widebody captain flying, there’s the common sense of pay, plus the fleeting reality of family. It’s not what you think.


First, pay. With widebody seniority but bidding narrow trips, I’m two things: first, an underachiever in pilot world. That is, pilots say to me, “With your seniority, why aren’t you bidding 777 trips?” Second, there’s the reality of pay, allowing me to make more on the smaller jet than on the widebody.

Why? Because I can hold the most efficient, high-time narrowbody turn-arounds, meaning two important things: I can fly more hours in less days, and I’m home every night. The first factor is key: yes, the hourly captain rate on the 737 is less than the 777, but I can fly more hours (usually over 90) in less days (10-12) than the typical 777 schedule, which hovers around 75 monthly hours over 14-16 days. The end result is that my narrowbody captain W-2 is better than I could achieve on the larger jets.

But more important to me: home and family. Bidding and flying the 737, I’m home every night. I get to be dad, husband, father–all of which means more to me than being a captain or pilot. That’s because flying is what I do, but dad and husband signifies who I am. And what endures.image

A trusted friend and longtime aviation industry observer and pundit, Giulia De Rosa, characterized it this way: Little Boeing, Big Life. I agree: what endures in life is not the arcs I carve in the sky, nor the tonnage of metal I fly. We all walk away from the jets eventually. But we never leave the family we belong to, raise, marry and care for.

Not very much like typical jet jock rhetoric, is it? I guess that’s a matter of priorities, plus perspective: I’ve never flown a better jet than the 737 Neo series. I embrace the challenges of LGA, DCA, SFO, SEA, ORD and the many complicated airports we fly into and out of. That Boeing jet is my best, most trusted friend in the air.

BUt I’m glad to be home every night, as opposed to flying the transcontinental odysseys some of my peers endure: “You don’t use power tools the day after a trip,” one 777 pilot told me. That’s because they may fly a double all-nighter Deep South to Buenos Aires, followed by a circadian rhythm-buster trip to Asia. As one of my peers on the 777 said, you just about get rested, then it’s time to turn your body clock upside down again. Before I upgraded to captain, I did that flying with the airline and even before that, as an Air Force pilot all over Asia and the South Pacific. In two words: over it.

Plus, for me, there’s a world beyond Mach number, high altitude cruise and low-viz approaches. As I flew flew my monthly trips over the years, I invested the time in a longterm academic endeavor far removed from flying: academia, grad school, a doctorate and that’s part of my life now: literature, writing, and academia; since 2003,  university students letting me share that world of discovery with them. That’s something that endures beyond flight, at least for me.


So there you have it: a lifetime airline pilot sidesteps the heavy metal in favor of family, home, and academia. As Giulia said: little Boeing, big life. The latter part, life, family, literature, that’s what I’m betting on, what I believe matters and endures.

Thank the pilots flying your longhaul flights, because they deserve it. But don’t feel sorry for those flying the smaller jets, because many are exactly where they belong.


Pilot Warns of Reckless Responses to Germanwings Tragedy.

Posted in air travel, airline cartoon, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, German wings 9525 with tags , , , , , on April 1, 2015 by Chris Manno

The media response and the social media firestorm after the Germanwings tragedy has prompted ill-advised, reckless “solutions” that in many cases, only makes air travel less safe.

Click here for my commentary on Mashable that has ignited its own firestorm of reaction.




Can YOU Stop A Jetliner on a Wintery Runway?

Posted in air travel, airline delays, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airline safety, Delta 1086 with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 5, 2015 by Chris Manno
LaGuardia Airport

LaGuardia Airport

Can YOU stop a jet on a winter runway?

Whenever an airliner slides off a taxiway or runway in winter conditions, the public and the media asks dozens of questions related to one overriding concern: how could this happen?

But for every other flight that lands on a winter-affected runway without incident, there were dozens of questions correctly answered by pilots related to THIS overriding concern: how can we assure that DOESN’T happen?

I’ve been flying in and out of LaGuardia and Washington Reagan all winter, accommodating ice, low visibility and contaminated surfaces in what has been an exceptionally vigorous winter storm season. The questions and correct answers required to assure a safe flight under such conditions are neither straightforward nor simple. Here’s the decision process–YOU decide what to do.


First, before we even depart for an airport affected by winter weather, we think about the factors that affect our landing: weight, wind, landing distance required, and runway surface conditions. And there are no easy answers any of these questions.

Weight comes first: considering stopping, you’d want weight to be the lowest possible, right? If only it were that simple: the primary, most variable weight in flight is fuel–if you reduce fuel weight to the bare minimum, you also reduce flying time to the bare minimum. The facts of life when flying into a major metropolitan airport include delays–demanding MORE flying time, thus more fuel and thus more weight. If you have only the minimum fuel aboard required to fly the distance, you are screwed: at the first delay (and airborne holding assignments of up to 30 minutes are typical) you must divert.

What you need to do is carry enough fuel to fly the miles AND accommodate typical, historically predictable enroute holding. We’ll have to be sure that we can still accommodate that weight on landing (checking landing distance charts) but that’s a separate question to be dealt with: for now, tank as much fuel as required to fly the distance and hold for a reasonable duration enroute.


We don’t leave the rest of the questions for arrival, but we do answer them late in the flight when the variables have been sorted out: once we’re in the terminal area, we finally can predict an accurate landing weight.

So we request the data-linked landing distance chart for our specific weight which is calculated by computers back at our tech center and sent to our on-board printer. Problem for you is this: the chart also has variables you must resolve: what is the runway condition, and what is the braking effectiveness?

Those two variables can not be definitely determined because the informational reports are both very subjective: the “runway condition” must be determined in reference to varying standards. Our airline calls a runway “contaminated” when 25% of the landing surfaces is contaminated by ice, standing water or snow.

Another airline may allow 30%, another 60%, so there’s never any “contaminated” determination available other than reports from previous company aircraft. But even those are subjective–how do you eyeball 75%–and in winter storms, conditions can worsen by the minute.


Braking effectiveness is another subjective report: what I consider “fair” braking for my jet (and I report this to the tower after landing based on what I just experienced) might be “good” for a lighter regional jet or “poor” for a heavier aircraft or and aircraft with less effective brakes. And, in heavy precip, that can change drastically in just minutes.

The landing distance charts reference “good” or “fair” in the conditional determination of braking effectiveness–but you now know that “report” is vague at best. Still, you must decide which calculation to use.

There’s also more than one chart for landing distance. The first one assumes that you touch down at the Visual Approach Slope Indicator (VASI) aimpoint which is about 1,500 feet from the runway threshold. There’s another chart that computes stopping distance from the visual touchdown markings on the runway some 500 feet prior to the VASI aimpoint. That chart, with the additional distance from the earlier touchdown point, may allow you to land based on stopping distance.


But can you accomplish that? The “you” is key–no one on the ground can answer that. Ultimately, the captain decides, and here’s what he’s thinking: what are the winds? A tailwind will make that very difficult, a headwind will help. But can you count on either wind report? Those reports, like “braking effectiveness,” have a very short shelf life–winds change minute by minute. Do you think your landing wind is reliably a headwind, or at least not a tailwind? Again, YOU have to answer that based on subjective reports.

As far as the visual touchdown aimpoint, are you going to be transitioning to this new, shorter target from an instrument approach, which has a more distant touchdown point more like the VASIs? If so, do you have adequate distance, time and visibility to do so? And the skill?

Finally, landing rollout must be done exactly right: spoilers deployed, reverse thrust promptly initiated at the proper level, and brakes applied promptly and correctly. That sounds easier than it is.

First, spoilers normally are automatically deployed–but that deployment needs certain prompts: main wheel spin-up is a primary trigger, and patchy ice may keep wheels from spinning, delaying auto deployment, even as you eat up critical landing distance. Or, like last month, I landed my 737-800 on a wintery DCA runway without the auto-spoiler system working. I agreed before dispatch on the flight that I could and would do so manually. My judgmental call, a fact of life in airline flight operations.

Regardless, the point is, the crew must assure spoiler deployment and effective reverse thrust AND full braking–all in a millisecond when landing distance is critical.

As crucial, you must put the jet down on the exact spot–neither before nor absolutely, not beyond–and put it down firmly to ensure wheel spin-up, essential for traction and auto-spoilers. If you’re the ignorant smartass getting off the plane after that trying to be witty by saying “You must be a Navy pilot, that was a carrier landing” or “I guess the brakes work,” I’ll ignore you–but the crew will write you off as an ignorant smartass just the same.


There’s no feeling worse in the cockpit than the anti-skid system releasing the brakes on rollout, even if you’ve done everything correctly, but that’s essential too: the system applies braking force to the very brink of a skid, beyond which there’s no braking, just sliding. If you’ve calculated your stopping distance based on “fair” reports, you can expect some releasing as the brakes do their job. All the more reason for a firm and accurate touchdown.

I expect and require every landing to be on the correct speed (faster makes stopping more difficult) and on the right spot, even at DFW Airport with miles of runway to spare, simply because it must be (for me) the rule rather than the exception when I fly to LaGauardia, Washington Reagan or Santa Ana-Orange County with shorter runways. “Pretty” landings are a Hollywood contrivance and have no place in the actual profession.

When we stop safely and exit the runway, that’s because we correctly solved the puzzle: weights, speed, touchdown point, winds, and braking distance. For passengers, that means a safe trip completed. For the cockpit crew, the work is only beginning: all of these variables must be dealt with successfully again in order to execute a safe take-off or abort on that same winter-affected runway.

The airline industry in the United States has an enviable safety record, which is why the very rare incident gets so many media headlines. The real news is, overall, airline pilots are doing their job very well.


Air Asia Crash Raises Questions For Pilots.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

sunset 1

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

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

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

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

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

adi 2

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

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

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

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

adi 1

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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