Archive for the life of an airline pilot

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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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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Your Pilot Isn’t Thinking About Your Connection–and That’s Good.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline cartoon, airline delays, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 7, 2014 by Chris Manno

 

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There’s a blessed silence in the cockpit right before pushback, immediately after the number one flight attendant reports “cabin ready,” and slams the cockpit door securely shut. Before that, the usual boarding chaos filters through the open cockpit door, the clatter of catering the forward galley, ramp workers stepping in to deliver some cargo paperwork, maybe some aircraft maintenance techs wrapping up required service or repairs.

But the noise and activity isn’t all that ends with the door slam. We call it “sterile cockpit,” an industry-wide concept rooted in the best Crew Resource Management (CRM) practices that dictates all non-flight essential conversation ceases in order to focus solely on the prescribed, often complex procedures required to fly the jet.

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In other words, leave all distractions behind and keep your head in the game. And I take that concept a step further–I clear my mind of everything except procedures (there are a multitude) and situational awareness: he’s moving, we’ll wait … wingtip clearance here … wind shift, at least for now … we’re heavier than planned.

Not just sterile cockpit verbally, but mentally as well. When you’re moving eighty tons of metal and a hundred sixty warm bodies, there’s no room for distraction. My airline (like most, I assume) has done a good job of minimizing outside considerations through the basic premises from which the pilot-in-command operates.

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For me that means I’ve “pre-worried” about the extraneous considerations–both yours and mine–and for the good of all, I’ve put them aside, compartmentalized them, and now look beyond them. When I say yours, I mean your down line connection, your time schedule, your reason for flying whether business or pleasure. Mine often overlap yours–my days off, my family plans, my important events, even my own physical stress of time zone shifts, late hours that could creep later, and my pay considerations.

Doesn’t mean these concerns are invalid, unimportant or dismissed–they’re just not on my mind as I balance crucial flight variables as they unfold. They’re fully addressed in the basic premises of our airline operation, stipulated in a hierarchy a passenger might not like, but which makes the most sense for a safe flight operation:

First, safety, second, passenger comfort and third, schedule. Yes, your connection, even your arrival time, is in third place. Just remember, I have similar personal concerns and I’m putting them completely aside as well. Here’s why.

A recent Flight Safety Institute report highlighted one of the factors that contributes to the comparatively high accident rate per flight hour experienced by air ambulance operators. One factor mentioned was the very real life or death pressure perceived by the pilots: if we don’t land on this spot, at this time, regardless of circumstances, a life may be lost.

That’s a very vivid and understandable urgency that would be difficult to put out of a pilot’s awareness. Nonetheless, the air ambulance operators with the lowest accident rates are the ones who’ve put CRM at the forefront, refocusing on flight safety limitations as a governing principle and setting aside all else.

 

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Now, your kid’s birthday, your business or other event, yes, they’re important–so are mine. But they aren’t life or death, are they? But as flight distractions, whether it’s an air ambulance or an air carrier, they could easily become exactly that.

From the moment we push back, the clock in my captain’s mind runs on weight, not minutes: how many pounds of fuel do I have, which translates into the ability to remain aloft. So, when you (or maybe a commuting crewmember, to be fair, asks “can we fly faster to make up time,” the real question in my mind is “can we afford to gamble by shortening our available fuel duration, and to what purpose and at what cost?” Less holding time available at our destination, maybe requiring a more stressful approach? No way.

scat vomitThe answer to “purpose” would be to shave off 5 to 10 minutes–hardly worth it–at the price of degrading our ability to arrival delays because of an increased fuel burn for speed. The question “can we top this weather rather than circumnavigating the area to save time” brings the opposite answer: maybe, but the more prudent option is to avoid–so we’ll spend the extra time (sorry about your connection–and mine) to do that.

And if you think we as pilots don’t have crucial connections, think again: besides losing pay in a misconnect, there’s more. For many crewmembers, even a ten minute late arrival can mean the difference between getting home or spending a night in a hotel at their own expense and losing a day with family. Sure, I eliminate that worry by not commuting, but crew base positions are determined by seniority–junior pilots and flight attendants can report to work and receive the official notice, “as of next month, you are based a thousand miles from home.”

That all needs to wait outside the cockpit door. Inside, we must focus on the vital flight considerations that trump all distractions.

Again, arrival time–and connections–hang in the balance, but that’s a distant third place behind safety. So yes, I’m not thinking about your connection–and you should be glad. Because that’s exactly what you’ve paid me for, and you deserve no less than the safest, most professional flight, no matter how long that takes.

 Fly the jet firsthand: cvr w white borderThese 25 short essays in the best tradition of JetHead put YOU in the cockpit and at the controls of the jet.

Some you’ve read here, many have yet to appear and the last essay, unpublished and several years in the writing,  I consider to be my best writing effort yet.

Own a piece of JetHead, from Amazon Books and also on Kindle.

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Brick by brick to the sky.

Posted in air travel, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, flight, jet flight with tags , , , , , , on October 22, 2014 by Chris Manno

 

He’d started out as a brick hod carrier, Frag had, working his way up from the grunt labor of the laden, creaking wooden hod to the old-world artisan status of a bricklayer and along the way, reducing himself in name only to the fractional monosyllable “Frag” as he did. That seemed enough for him, or so he’d said. Because what he did was larger and more weighty than anything he was ever called.

You, college boy,” he fairly barked in a gravelly smoker’s bass that typically ended in a hawk and a spit. “You ain’t nothing now ‘cept dog-hauling a hod for journeyman Frag.” He liked to refer to himself in the third person, and me as College Boy, reluctant hourly summer help, just some kind of cardboard thin cutout of a not-Frag, not perilously balancing a hod on the fourth floor, open girder structure as he had in an old-world, long lost tradesman reality.

And he was right–about that but even more: soaring buildings took shape on blue-lined white paper derived from computer-assisted draftsmen in thin ties and nine-to-five safety free of an unbalanced hod laden with the real heft of mortar and sand, the reality of what they designed, brought to life by the wiry tough, nut-hard muscle of Frag. And to a lesser degree, gofer College Boy me. Bound to the ground, all of them, till Frag gave them flight, story by grunting story.

The sweat equity, dirty fingernails payout of the endless hods Frags and lesser College Boys wrestled–you didn’t “carry” a hod, you balanced it–commanded the dreamscape of architecture and sweatless design to life on a gruntscape of muscle and brick placed just so, line to certain line, mortar scrape by deft, artistic bricklay and tap, brick by a thousand bricks, up into the sky.

I can never forget the achy weariness of burning college boy sinew, sun-baked of dry labor days and even after work, crazy beer-fueled joyrides balancing atop, for no sensible reason, Frag’s battleship-sized beater Pontiac as he’d fishtail and rage through a dirt-clodded, unpaved construction site. Why? Because Frag was bigger than all that, larger than anything they could design and he could build, that he orchestrated brick by brick with his callused hands and college boy’s dog-like, tongue-hanging dragging labor. Real work is only what you do with your hands, where your bring paper and promise to life. To flight.

Power control is key to airspeed.

Not so labor-coarse are the hands today resting atop the thrust levers harnessing a straining draft horse team bucking fifty-thousand pounds of jet thrust. Stand hard on the brakes and haw the team to roaring life, needing to know, to feel it, read it, personally. Sure, there are a thousand lines of computer code flowing through electric sinews monitoring the ungodly torrent of fire and fuel, metal and power slung under wide swept sleek wings howling against the brakes but no matter: journeyman Frag knows it ain’t right till it feels right, looks true as a plumb line to a tradesman’s eye for “right,” for launching more than a towering design, yet no more than that in the play out of someone else’s grand plan in the sky.

To my right College Boy, jet edition, eyes me warily as I hold it all in my tight-handed, set jaw grasp, squint-eyeing what we’ve built to be sure, to know it’s true. Hah. Stand on the roof, college boy, and hang on. We’re going to fly, make it soar, like never before or again.

Live it, fly it with me: cvr w white borderThese 25 short essays in the best tradition of JetHead put YOU in the cockpit and at the controls of the jet.

Some you’ve read here, many have yet to appear and the last essay, unpublished and several years in the writing,  I consider to be my best writing effort yet.

Own a piece of JetHead, from Amazon Books and also on Kindle.

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Airliners, Ebola, Myths and Facts

Posted in air travel, airline, airline cartoon, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot blog, flight crew, jet, passenger with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 2, 2014 by Chris Manno

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Airliners, Ebola, Myths and Facts

The most recent communicable disease being linked with air travel as a possible factor in its spread is Ebola, which joins a long line of other contagions, such as SARS, H1N1, Hepatitis and even the basic flu, in the screaming air travel headlines.

There are two ways in which air travel could actually be a factor in the spread of such infections. First is the simple reality of transporting those infected to an uninfected area, and second is the propagation of infectious elements among people near the disease carrier.

This last consideration is medical and comes with contingencies well beyond my level of expertise. But what is absolutely common knowledge is that countermeasures in any public place–which an airliner is–are rudimentary. Your airline seat–like your theater seat, your seat at a dinner table, a taxi cab, a bus, a classroom, or any public area–is not sanitized before your use, no matter who sat there before you. That’s the public health standard in the modern world.

Yet the media rushes to the airport to show file footage of an airliner, then grab man on the street interviews with deplaned passengers, asking if they’re concerned about being exposed to [fill in contagion du jour] from other passengers who have visited [fill in global contagion hotspot] from possible proximity to an infected person.

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It’s a short leap from there to certain urban myths about air travel. First, and most persistent yet absurd, is “passengers are in a sealed tube, breathing the same air.”

The reality of an airliner is yes, the hull is pressurized, but no, it is not sealed. In fact, the fundamental link between pressurization and air conditioning on a passenger airliner at all altitudes is a constant outflow from the jet in flight, into the atmosphere. The controlled outflow is key to moving volumes of air through the cabin in a deliberately designed pattern for many vital functions beyond passenger comfort.

In a Boeing 737-800, that carefully crafted flow pattern drives air from two air conditioning systems through the cabin and cockpit, down through the forward electronic equipment bay below the cockpit where it picks up residual heat from electronic systems to keep that vital equipment at optimum operating temp, then the airflow proceeds back around the cargo compartment, keeping that compartment from getting too cold, then overboard through an automatically modulated outflow valve.

Key to that process is flow. The plane is not sealed, so constant airflow is mandatory–and here’s where another urban myth surfaces: airlines are limiting airflow to save money.

The fact is, airlines are increasing airflow to save money: in our Boeing, we have two large, powerful recirculating fans driving airflow which in basic Venturi logic, draws air from the air conditioning systems and eases the workload ultimately on the engines from which the bleed air is tapped and thereby increasing fuel mileage.

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The urban myth about decreased aircraft airflow to save money probably originated in the early seventies when the OPEC oil embargo drastically spiked fuel prices. Airline engine technology was simpler and less efficient before today’s high-bypass fan engines were developed. But even then, less bleed air really never improved airline fuel burn and regardless, an jetliner was never a sealed tube and always required metered outflow balanced with input to maintain pressurization.

“Raising the altitude in the cabin to save money” is the third urban myth with no basis in fact. First, in the Boeing, pilots have control of the rate of change only–the cabin altitude is set at a constant differential between inside and outside the hull based on maintaining the strength of the fuselage. Hollywood may have inspired the myth that pilot can “raise the cabin altitude,” but the only thing we can actually do is climb or descend and when we do, the pressurization systems maintain a constant differential and a constant airflow in order to maintain structural integrity of the fuselage.

So back to my original point: yes, airliners are the hardware of mobility that now mixes populations experiencing regional outbreaks with others a world way, but only in the modern sense of scale: all continents are now linked by air travel in hours rather than days or months of travel. But travel itself is the fundamental reality of the twenty-first century, period.

And that mode of travel, “air travel,” is neither conducive to propagation any more than any other public place, nor is any airline adding any infectious risk to “save money.” The most glaring stupidity in that persistent myth is the vital contingency the the flight crew must blindly increase their own health risks to do anything of the kind.

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In the passenger airline flight crew world, we often refer to an airliner as “the flying Petri dish,” because people with every communicable disease board, fly, sneeze, hack and cough just as they do in any public place. But that’s no different than the environment endured by the first grade teacher, the restaurant waiter, or pediatric nurse.

And the airline seats are about as “sanitized” as the movie seat you sat in, the tray table as “clean” as the restaurant tabletop the busboy just wiped with a wet rag dipped in tepid, hours-old water from a well-used bucket.

In other words, as far as infectious disease exposure risk, an airliner is just like any other public area–we just move faster and more frequently from place to place. It’s not a sealed tube, no one is reducing airflow or raising the cabin altitude to save money.

So use common sense about flying, recognize the airliner cabin as a public place and behave accordingly (thanks for mopping the lav floor with your socks, BTW), and breathe easy when you do, knowing the truth about these unfounded flying myths.

More insider info? Step into the cockpit:

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These 25 short essays in the best tradition of JetHead put YOU in the cockpit and at the controls of the jet.

Some you’ve read here, many have yet to appear and the last essay, unpublished and several years in the writing,  I consider to be my best writing effort yet.

Priced at the printing production cost, this collection is not for profit–it’s for YOU to keep.

Own a piece of JetHead, from Amazon Books and also on Kindle.

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Flight Crew Like You: The Airline Cartoon Book Now Available

Posted in air travel, air travel humor, airline, airline cartoon, airline cartoon book, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, flight crew with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 2, 2014 by Chris Manno

Finally, collected and published, the JetHead firsthand cartoon view of air travel, airlines and flight crews:

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Here’s the insider, behind-the-scenes look at the world of airlines, air travel and flight crews!

This all-original cartoon collection takes you inside the flight crew world on the flightline, flying trips, facing the ups and downs of flight crew life from an insider’s perspective. The 74 pages of cartoons in this collection are must-haves for anyone who is an air traveler, a frequent flyer, or a crewmember–or hoping to be!

Available now on Amazon–just click the link below.

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 Here’s a sneak preview of just a few of the cartoons in this book:

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Get your copy now–just click the button below:

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Fried Sky with a Side of Regret.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline industry, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airliner, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, jet with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 29, 2014 by Chris Manno

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Night falls slowly, painfully on the flight deck westbound. Chasing the sun but losing, sunset grudgingly unfolds in slo-mo, Pat Summerall running color commentary: “Oh my, that’s not how it’s supposed to happen.” A burning lip flecked with cobalt, shafts of charcoal stolen from the blue promising a stormy beating for a landscape miles away, yet you know, feel, what you can’t see. Darkness comes in withering shades and declining latitudes, searing the horizon, azure overtaking the florid arc as if the smoldering, sighing sun just didn’t give a damn anymore.

Entropy flies in the cargo belly: chickens–baby chicks breathing through air holes in cardboard cartons, never imagining themselves winging 500 knots across the ground–and radioactive material (aft compartment), tagged bags and other stuff, plus a tissue sample on dry ice rushing to doctors on the sunset coast, deciding if someone in the eastern darkness can live or die, or so the cargo folks told me.

Not really more sanguine upstairs in the pressure hull defying the -60 degree stratopause inches away, with a meager partial pressure of oxygen that would instantly start the blood bubbling and the gas escaping crushed lungs in a fog. Never mind, eyes on the prize, 250 degrees true, beyond the jagged threshold of the Rockies and Sierras. Less than an hour to go.

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While I’m ten stories forward of the aft jumpseat confessional, I’m aware of what’s unfolding nonetheless. One just left her husband, the other just got left. Forward galley, well he’s an old friend, a gay guy with a good head on his shoulders and compassion enough to care how hard relationships, same sex or otherwise, can be when the wreckage piles up.

And we both have Old Testament faith in flightcrew clannishness: we’ll get through whatever together, day, night, a few thousand miles or continent, even an ocean away; the jumpseat and crew van and the gawd awful bidsheet that binds us hot forges a flightcrew stronger than we could ever be alone. So we never really are–and the two pros will smile and work that coach cart, they’ll do the giving that they always do, with stronger hearts regardless of the weight they’re bearing.

Me, up front, I’m just the timekeeper, shoveling coal to stoke the boiler fire and constantly questioning the course I’ve set: can we get the chickens and tissue and broken hearts and shattered dreams to the far coast with fuel burn I counted on? Does the X-Ray vision of the radar and the wind plot say that the wedding gown carefully, almost religiously stowed in the forward closet will make it timelessly to the reunion with the soul-sister maid of honor waiting to pick up the bride in the City by the Bay?

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Flex. Breathe, flex again; crank the rudder pedals back, unfold the six foot scrunch another inch, strapped in just the same. Breathe. Force the HEFOE litany carved in stone an age ago: “hydraulics, electric, fuel, engines, oxygen,” amen. Simple, my part as captain is: keep us flying forward, rightfully, safely. Be the faceless guy in the locomotive cab of the wailing freight train, dragging an ice trail across the night sky, contrails silhouetted in moonlight like silver rails against a shadowy landscape thundering below: dusk left and right, darkness behind–we sail on ahead nonetheless.

Crossing the last waypoint before arrival and descent, claim that inward smile: job done, promises kept; plans worked, fuel plenty, brides, chicks and heartbreak alike–delivered. From here it’s only about negotiating the descent, the approach, landing and taxi in. Cake. And folks will either be happy or not, but you did what you promised them. Chicks will either recognize a new coast or they won’t, someone in New Jersey will get good news (I hope) or bad, and somebody’s big day will lead to a lifetime of heartache or not. And the heartbreak cabin crew will be replaced by another eastbound, instantly bound by the Gilligan’s Island of flight crews: castaways, for better or worse, on a thin air island eight miles above and a world away.

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Yet in the end, it’s not regret, really, that darkens your sky, but in a way it is: can’t be sure how any of what we landed just now turns out afterward, though I’m not sure I’m supposed to know. Back off; take a deep breath and set out once again on the ironclad litany for the eastbound flight, the homeward leg. Regret can wait; another worthy ark of eastbound hope and dreams and everything in between sails on at brake release and pushback in an hour. Claim a breath, a moment of peace, then get your head back in the game: details, captain, and promises you must keep for the hundred some souls on board.

Keep ‘em, every one, defy the sunrise alone. Careful, truthful, the sky is the footpath home.

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Jet Fuelishness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

737 landing crop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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