Archive for transportation

Help for Fearful Flyers

Posted in air travel, airline cartoon, airline delays, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airline ticket prices, airlines, airport, airport security, fear of flying, flight crew, jet, mile high club, passenger, pilot, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 31, 2015 by Chris Manno

Cover Airline Book 1Here’s a chapter from my brand new book, “Air Travel and The Death of Civility: A Field Manual & Survival Guide,”  crammed full of shortcuts, insider info and little-known techniques to make your air travel as stress-free and smooth as possible.

Available now from Amazon.com Just click on the title link above, or search on Amazon.

Help for Fearful Flyers

Please don’t feel alone because you’re not: many passengers have some level of nervousness about flying. It’s just another version of the anxiety many feel at the dentist, the emergency room; virtually anywhere new, unfamiliar, and potentially uncomfortable. In fact, people and businesses actually cultivate and market exactly this type of anxiety at theme parks with roller coasters, haunted houses, and terrifying thrill rides. Some people actually crave the feeling.

What a nervous flyer feels is perfectly normal and need not eliminate the option of flying. That fact alone is reassuring, especially in the case of groups or couples who limit their travel options due to the reluctance of one individual to fly. Often, a large part of a passenger’s unease is an understandable fear of the unknown, which is essentially just unfamiliarity with a strange new environment. So let’s fill in some of those blanks in your flying knowledge and then, we’ll discuss techniques to manage your unease.

Land in crud

First, let’s consider the aircraft and its durable, ingenious engineering. The designers of our jet have refined their process of building and manufacturing our airliner through decades of progressively better models with ever-improving materials and techniques.

The aircraft was built to rigorous standards of strength and durability far beyond what we will ever encounter in flight. To be specific, the FAA certification standard required the aircraft to demonstrate that it could withstand forces in turbulence well beyond that which has ever been recorded, plus an additional margin, with complete airframe integrity. That means that regardless of turbulence, there will be no airframe damage or structural deformity, we’ll be still flying just fine. Basically, this aircraft is not coming apart in any conditions we encounter in flight. You don’t worry about your car running over a bump at high speed, over railroad tracks, or even a curb–but it’s not built to anywhere near the strength standard of our jet.

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You’ll actually notice less turbulence in flight these days, due to a couple of assets we use. First, radar technology has advanced not only in display resolution, but also in a predictive capability: now, our digital radar and on-board computers are sifting through thousands of bits of digital data gathered by radar and other systems, giving us an accurate prediction of where turbulence may occur. Our radar is integrated with the Global Positioning Satellite system and knows where it is at all times, allowing it to separate terrain features like mountains from weather echoes. The radar aims itself correctly and has an accurate, interactive display of over 300 miles ahead of the aircraft. The radar has a “pop-up” feature that allows it to show on our displays even if it’s not selected, when it finds a weather problem many miles away that we need to know about.

Add to that the ground-based computer analyses that are charting patterns of turbulence, which are then automatically up-linked to us in flight, plus the exchange of real-time information between pilots and air traffic controllers and the end result is less turbulence encounters, and lighter turbulence when encountered. There are days when rides just aren’t completely smooth and we’ll encounter some bumps. But rest assured, we’re working our way through the sky in the smoothest flight path possible.

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Visualize the air we fly in for the fluid that it is, with currents, eddies, flows, and even the wakes of other aircraft also aloft. Crossing a jet’s wake is much like crossing that of a boat: rumbles, some bumping, then we’re past the wake. Atmospheric eddies and currents can cause similar short periods of bumpiness, or even just a mostly choppy sea of blue. If that persists, we’ll search for a smoother altitude–just give us a few minutes to coordinate a clearance from air traffic control.

Mountains cause the atmospheric equivalent of river rapids in the airflow, even at altitude, because orographic features like ranges and peaks act like rocks in a stream, causing a rougher ride. That’s typical of a flight path across the Rockies: some bumpiness is not unusual. But you can rest assured that at our flight speed, we’ll pass through the area without delay.

In US airspace, airlines and Air Traffic Control pool weather information to share among all flights, and one designated FAA facility manages traffic and routes around areas of severe weather. With all of these assets working for us every flight, we don’t get taken by surprise by weather.

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That type of coordination that shares weather and route information is emblematic of the entire US aviation system, which has had a seventy-year learning curve of development, testing, and refining that has resulted in a strong, reliable oversight and infrastructure for commercial aviation, including

the Federal Aviation Administration, Department of Transportation, and the National Transportation Safety Board. All three in combination provide experienced and comprehensive oversight that makes flying the safest mode of transportation you could choose.

Another highly-developed airline support system monitors our jet in flight. Our technical operations center monitors hundreds of bits of data sent in a non-stop, automated stream from our jet in flight. In flight, I’ve had a message from our round-the-clock tech center print out that said, “Can you verify the vibration on the left engine? It’s reading a little high down here.” The engines alone transmit a huge stream of telemetry to our tech center, and that data allows long-range trend diagnosis that has all but eliminated in-flight engine failure on the Boeing jets I fly. Trend data and years of diagnostic experience have allowed Boeing, our

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tech staff, and our maintenance center to keep aircraft systems in peak operating forms.

From years of firsthand experience, I can say Boeing jets in particular are finely engineered, rugged and reliable American-made jets, and that’s the main reason I fly them. Thousands of hours in Boeing cockpits have given me every confidence in the strength, power, and versatility of these jets which are capable of handling anything we could encounter in flight.

I’m fairly typical of the pilots you’ll find in command of your flight, in my thirtieth year with my airline, my twenty-fourth as captain. I was an Air Force pilot before that, and like my colleagues on the flight deck, I have the singular goal of flying safely, procedurally perfectly, and always conservatively. I have three back up plans for every eventuality and firmly believe there is nothing I could face in flight that is beyond my capability. That’s not only due to experience, but mostly because of years of relentless, ongoing advanced training not only in full-motion simulators, but through hours of classroom instruction, systems training, and recurrent exams. I have every confidence in the copilots I fly with who share the exact same goals, procedures, and training. In the cockpit, we’re unanimous about one thing: the safe, efficient, and smooth operation of our flight.

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So, knowing all this, what else can you do to ease the stress of a flight? First, keep the above facts in mind, reviewing as needed leading up to your flight and even on board. Second, keep track of the elapsed time. Your airline app will tell you how much flight time to expect, as will the captain in his PA and also, the flight attendants will normally tell you the planned flight time in their PA. Whatever the total flight time is, divide it in half. Now, keep track of the first half, which will elapse much faster for you than the total time. Just that half, count it down. Upon reaching halftime, relax and rejoice: from there you will count down an ever-shrinking time period much shorter (and growing ever shorter) than you have already endured quite successfully.

Concentrate on your breathing, keeping it steady and calm. Reading matter, a video, music: dive in, focus on that. Claim a little “me” time and catch up on reading or viewing that you never seem to have time for otherwise.

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Keep an eye on your halftime benchmark, noting your steady progress. Bear in mind the fluid aspect of air and anticipate some waves in this most vast sea we’re sailing through. Be confident that your extensive flight team, including the crew on board as well as our airline technical, operational, and dispatch staff constantly monitoring and interacting with us in flight, plus the air traffic control network of pros handling our route passage. We’ve all been doing this for a long time and as our record shows, we’re darn good at it.

I’ve used the countdown technique at the dentist office (my “nervous flyer” experience) as well as when running several 26.2 marathons. It works!

There may never be a time when a nervous flyer actually enjoys a flight, but there’s no reason a flight can’t be tolerated with minimal stress with a little forethought and perhaps, an equal amount of distraction with entertainment or conversation. Here’s a summary for you to review as needed:

Summary:

• Unfamiliarity is often at the core of preflight anxiety. Review the contents of this book and this section, and give yourself credit for your successful progress through the various steps required for a plane flight.

• Your aircraft is a tough, versatile, well-designed engineering marvel that has been refined over years of improvements.

• Constant monitoring of the aircraft’s vital systems in flight allows reliability and safety that makes air travel the safest travel option.

• Weather systems are a reality of life, but we have advanced technology on-board as well as on the ground keeping us well ahead of weather challenges and well clear of danger.

• The atmosphere is a fluid and behaves much like a large body of water, with the same, normal characteristics such as currents, flow, eddies, wakes, and the occasional bump.

• Your pilots are highly experienced and dedicated solely to the safe, professional operation of your flight.

• Use the countdown system of flight time to your advantage, watching your time aloft grow ever shorter.

Cover Airline Book 1Other chapters include buying a ticket, getting the best deal and the right seat, check-in and security shortcuts, on-board perspective, aircrew insider perspective, damage control and much, much more. Read this book, then travel like a pro!

The perfect gift for someone about to travel, for those reluctant to fly–and for those eager to fly and wanting to have a stress-free, excellent air travel experience.

Order your copy from Amazon.com

Just click this link.

Airline Amazon screenshot

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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Summer Weather, Flight Delays and YOU.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline delays, airline pilot blog, airport, fear of flying, flight crew, flight delays, passenger, travel, travel tips, weather with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 29, 2013 by Chris Manno

fll sunsetYou can see the weather plain as day. But it’s miles away, right? How could that cause flight delays? Or worse, on a day that’s clear at the airport–yet your flight shows a one hour or longer departure day. Why?

Think big–or at least think far: miles translate into minutes in the air, and unlike your car on the freeway, we’re not creeping along under the storm–we have to get through it. At altitude, sure, we can go around weather or sometimes, even over a storm. But there’s the problem on take-off and landing: we are too low to do either.

First, let’s look at departure:

wx radar departure

Sure, the weather is nearly twenty miles away. But in flight time, we’re talking about maybe three minutes. Then what?

Normally, there are at least six eastbound routes available, but as you can see, due to the weather that extends from the north to the south, even twenty miles away, there are only two routes available to go east: straight north, or straight south. And guess what? They’re the same ones that will have to be used for the inbound aircraft–and they’re already in the air, many for over three hours inbound from the east coast, or up to nine hours from Europe. Guess who rightfully has priority on the clear routes?

Here’s more bad news for your outbound schedule:

lowgn4All of the departures–like the one pictured in above, and depicted on the navigation display with the radar image above–have very specific instructions for headings, altitudes and even speeds. But with the weather blanketing the area, no jet can comply with these very orderly instructions, so instead, air traffic controllers have to issue all headings and altitudes individually to each aircraft, checking to be sure that weather doesn’t interfere.

So the Air Traffic Control system must space jets by ten, sometimes ever twenty miles in trail to allow for the individual handling required, which means that instead of the usual interval of thirty seconds to a minute between launches, now takeoff will have to be 2-3 minutes in between.  You’re number ten for take-off? Count on at least 30 minutes, maybe more–especially if the weather arrives over the field while you wait.

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So, rather than have a traffic jam at the end of the runway waiting to take off, ATC issues all aircraft an “EDCT” (Expect Departure Clearance Time), or “edict,” as the acronym is typically mangled by crews, or even “wheels up time” in more common usage. This can usually mean an Air Traffic Control imposed delay on your pushback from the gate of forty-five minutes to an hour or more.

That presents another problem: while a delayed flight is held on the gate, the next aircraft scheduled for that gate will be delayed as well, either in the deplaning of passengers or the boarding of its next segment. At a major hub for any airline, there aren’t enough extra gates to make up for flights that must be held on their departure gates. If you arrive at the terminal and notice about double the normal amount of passengers milling about–that’s why: their outbound jet is waiting while a delayed flight sits on the gate, waiting for its EDCT time to roll around.

That’s what happens on the ground–here’s what happens in flight–which actually contributes to the confusion and delays on the ground.

wx radar arrivalSee the racetrack pattern near “CAPTI?” That’s where we’re going to be holding, hoping the weather clears within our allotted holding fuel, which is about 45 minutes. The airport is under the blob of storms at the convergence of all the lines.

The jet we’re flying is being ardently awaited at DFW by 160 passengers who plan to fly on it to LAX after we deplane our Dulles passengers at DFW. But, we’re now on our way–diverting–to New Orleans because DFW is still closed and won’t open for at least an hour.

Add to that the fact that my copilot and I started our flight day at 12:35pm. We leave New Orleans at 11pm, but have to fly all the way to Abilene before we can turn back to the east around the scythe of thunderstorms bisecting Texas. What’s normally a one hour and ten minute flight turns into two and a half hours, pushing my first officer to a 14 hour flight duty day, landing at 2:15am.

Not sure what happened to all the LAX-bound folks, whether they got a crew to fly the leg or not, or what happened to the connecting passengers on our flight arriving after 2am.

All I know is that this promises to once again be another season of crowded skies, summer storms, bone-achingly long flight days and above all, a challenge to everyone’s fortitude and patience. Now that you know the “what and why” of the weather story–maybe you could explain it to the guy seated next to you, wondering why everything is so messed up because of a little old storm?

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How Big is the Sky?

Posted in airline, airline delays, airline industry, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airline pilot podcast, airline podcast, airport with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 13, 2013 by Chris Manno

cockpit panoThe cockpit is a solemn place in the pregnant pause between preflight and pushback. Always, like a deserted island where everything’s already been said: checklists done, preflight complete, systems verified, amen. Plenty more details and decision points ahead, but nothing to worry about now, because the litany of procedures, numbers, actions, maneuvers and control inputs are etched in your mind like an inscription in granite. Thinking about the details is unneeded; knowing what’s to come and when is like running a hand over the inscription without reading the words–and that’s enough for now.

“You have a visitor,” the number one flight attendant breaks the reverie, ushering a school-aged boy into the cockpit. He looked to be maybe seven . . . eight? Dutifully wide-eyed behind thick glasses, a woman–must be his mom–hovering behind.

“C’mon in,” you say. “Are you the new copilot?” You jerk a thumb toward the F/O. “Because he’s pretty useless. You can do a better job–you ready?” Covertly, F/O gives you the finger. You smile.

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The young man shakes his head in silence. “Go ahead,” mom prompts. “Ask him.” Then she adds, “He’s usually a chatterbox; loves airplanes. I think he’s a little overwhelmed.”

Good thing I’ve been such a smartass–that doesn’t help. “Sure, ask away,” you say. Stuff about airspeed? Controls? How we operate systems? He fixes you with a flat stare like he was looking right through you and into your heart.

“How big is the sky?”

Now there’s a question I’ve never been asked. And I’m not even sure how to answer.

“Yeah, Captain,” a smirking F/O echoes, “You’ve spent about thirty years in the sky. Just how big is it?”

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Hard to say. Seen it when it wasn’t big enough, plunging straight down with a tangled parachute, cows below coming into focus faster than I ever wanted. Had to get a reserve chute out before finding where the sky ended and the earth began and even then, hit like a ton of bricks as if both earth and sky wanted to teach me a lesson about leaving one for the other.

38Other times, the boundaries hardly mattered; gravity, the speed of sound–just mileposts on the way to somewhere higher, farther, faster and more furious than anything else in the thinnest parts of the sky. Those times felt like you were bigger than the sky itself, bulletproof and immortal.

But then you’ve seen it, too, when it was too large, swallowing up a past or a future, a passage never to be undone.

Because when it is, the sky is mute but bears the passage anyway, indifferent: coming back? Gone forever, though you thought not.

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There’s a road through the sky for that too. Too big, too far, but crossing the blue was a choice to be borne nonetheless. And if the sky were time, you’ve seen it too short, knowing some folks are making a one way passage . . .

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. . . while others are only now setting out on their first. We’re all in the same sky, big or small as it is. You can ask the question, but the answer depends.

“I mean,” a small voice breaks into the suspended moment of thought and silence. “I mean in case we fall.” Big eyes, in all seriousness, all seven or eight years looking ahead and asking.

You just can’t worry about that. In fact, it wouldn’t matter anyway–we all go where we must, take the sky as it comes, cross it where we can, while we can. With those close to us or alone, however we must. Shepherded by mom today, shepherding his own tomorrow.

At the speed of sound on his own, without wings if he wants (bad idea, trust me), to new worlds and old, forward as we all go through the blue till it dims to black.

Smile. “We won’t,” you tell him. “You won’t, and we won’t. So let’s go fly.”

He thinks about it for a moment, his eyes searching, but not on me; elsewhere, maybe finding a place for the idea, judging for himself the size of the sky ahead of him. Mom gives me a look: what, knowing? Ponderous? Then a smile, steering him by the shoulders back to the cabin.

Couple more minutes and it’ll be time: seal it up, push it back, light the fires and taxi, then take off.  How big is the sky?

Well, let’s go find out.

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Winter Flying: Faith and Defiance.

Posted in airline, airline pilot blog, flight, flight crew, flight delays, jet, passenger, pilot, travel, weather with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 13, 2013 by Chris Manno

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I can’t decide if winter flying is is one long act of defiance, or shorter acts of combined faith. On a cold January day with an icy, raggedy ceiling and needle-like freezing rain rasping against the fuselage on taxi-out, on board it’s a steady 75 degrees. People aboard reflect the destination, not our departure point–and act of faith on their part requiring an act of defiance on mine.

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It’s actually a worthy challenge, bringing all of the details to a successful conclusion: flight planning, routing, de-icing, preflight, taxi-out and pre-take-off de-icing. There’s a puzzle to assemble, jagged pieces of holdover times for de-icing fluid, precip rates and types–you know what’s reported, but you deal with what’s actually happening–and it’s up to you to account for the difference. Take-off performance degrades; weight limits based on the restrictions of leaving, but with due diligence to the weather conditions 1,200 miles south.

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Boeing has given us a marvelous machine that will wake up encased in ice, but in a matter of minutes will operate from the ice box to the tropics. Not magic–just a lot of grunt work by a lot of people.

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It’s a lot slower, but more than the temperature is involved: there are more requirements, plus people and machines work slower in the cold. As they should be expected to do, but which often results in frustration for those whose involvement is limited to riding the jet rather than trying to fly it safely. Sorry.

But eventually, we get to this:

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Again, that’s going to be slow, too, by necessity. But be patient: the destination must be worth the trip, right? But inevitably, the factors a passenger plans to escape by air don’t make that escape easy.

Half the battle is getting into the air–where the other half is usually just as challenging. Again, the same crud that you want to escape packs a punch from the surface to the stratosphere. We’ll deal with that, too, at 300 knots, or maybe 280 if it’s bumpy. Already told the cabin crew to remain seated till I call them, when I’m sure we’re in safe, stable air. More griping from passengers, I know, but they’re not responsible for not putting a crewmember through a ceiling panel.

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This is how it might look if anyone checked ahead (I did) so it wasn’t surprising face to face, really. Which looks more like this, and nobody’s getting to paradise till they work their way through this frontal line.

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Eventually, we win: the further south we go, the more miles we put behind us, the weather–and the escape–become reality. You begin to get a glimpse of paradise with your 320 mile digital vision. The 20-20 eyeballs show the passage from land to water, a sure sign of warmer days for 160 souls on board, patient or not.

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Soon it’s all blue, with ghostly outlines below that carve the indigo into brown and green, lush islands poking above the mild, warm seas.

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Nassau, the Bahamas, straight ahead. Power back, begin the slow, gentle glide from seven miles high to sea level. More islands slide silently below the nose. Never tire of seeing the parade of blues, browns, greens; paradise.

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Where’s the snow now? The icy grip of winter? Escape–by the lucky hundred and sixty aboard, each with their own getaway plan, winter runaways we eagerly aid and abet: someone has to break free, to teach winter a lesson.

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A world away, if only but the blink of an eye in a lifetime, it’s nonetheless an eyeful. I’m happy for those who’ll stay, at least for a while.

IMG_1390Welcome to Nassau. For me, it’s a few moments of sunshine and sea air on the ramp while ground crews unload cargo, reload, refuel and get us turned around and ready for launch back to the north. Too soon, in a way, but not soon enough in another: this isn’t my escape–it’s my job.  From which, for the vagabond pilot, home is the escape. Will be back here, back and forth, all winter.

IMG_1388He’s headed home, too, a longer way back, but with a couple hundred aboard not facing the cold quite yet. But likely missing the scenery shrinking below as we climb and arc away to the north.

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So long to paradise, hello radar scan; fuel burn, overwater navigation, peaceful cruise until you face the enemy line you already slipped through once today. Still there, waiting. The sun gives up, slips into the muck and so do you, both promising another trip around the globe another day.

IMG_1391There’s the final act of defiance, or maybe faith: through the choppy, sleet-streaked darkness, at 200 knots, toward the runway you better know is below the 200 foot ceiling.

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Then it’s all about home, after appeasing the winter gods (“We brought at least as many back from paradise–you can ruin the rest of their season, plus make them wistful for the tropics the rest of the year!”) yet again. A healthy respect goes both ways; careful defiance, faithful flight. Starts again tomorrow.

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2012: An Airline Pilot’s View

Posted in air travel, airline, airline pilot blog with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 29, 2012 by Chris Manno

Just thinking last night, flying back to DFW: where has this year gone?

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It’s been another year and thousands of miles below the nose of the Boeing, one flight hour at a time, about 800 hours in 2012. The view has been everything from stunning to mundane, inspirational to humbling, but all of it good. Where to begin? How about this week?

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Winter time in West Palm Beach: the winds come out of the north, meaning you land to the west–which means a long final approach over the Atlantic, facing westbound into the blazing sunset. That small cloud schooner happened by at just the right time to offer the perfect sun shade on approach.

Rewind just to last week. Punched out of a cirrus deck at 38,000 feet and looking down . . . what the heck is that?

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A West Texas dirt sky: dust and grit from the Panhandle swirling up over 15,000 feet, engulfing Lubbock, Texas. A late year dust storm, powerful and thick. Returning from the coast five hours later, in the darkness, all you could see below was a dull glow of city lights through the red cloud still swirling there.

Of course no look back at 2012 would be complete without a shot of the Utah badlands, a view you just can never tire of:

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And I never, ever tire of watching Bryce Canyon, Utah, repaint itself according to the sunlight and the season.

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Spring of 2012 brought beautiful weather to the Pacific Northwest, of course, making for some stunning mountain views:

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I never tire of the views of Mt. Ranier, always covered in some type of cirrus veil. Colder temps? Northern winds and climate? Not sure why, but the sky is usually calm, with decks of stately cirrus laid across the sky from horizon to horizon.

Spring also brought wildfire season, and 2012 had plenty in Colorado:

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Seems like the fires went on longer than ever this year, but maybe not. And storm season made spring and summer the usual challenge, although the Boeing radar and the ability to cruise at higher altitude makes the season easier to manage:

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Sometimes you just have to go off the magenta line and plot your own course, you know? And despite all the technology plotting course lines for you, there’s nothing wrong with a sailor’s eye finding the best path through the towering canyons:

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That’s kind of what being a pilot is all about, isn’t it? Freedom you just don’t have on the earth or the sea, for that matter. Still, that’s nothing new, is it? But here’s what is:

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Technology at the cutting edge: American Airlines is the first and only airline certified by the FAA to use all digital flight charts and publications in all phases of flight. So there’s my iPad with the most up-to-date approach depictions and at a touch of the correct tab, any chart I need–rather than the 2,000 (literally–not kidding) pages of flimsy paper in several volumes we used to carry. “Welcome to the curse,” a First Officer said to me when I became one myself.  He meant the tedious posting of chart revisions twice a month–and at last that curse has been lifted.

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Not “new” on board this year but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention them: the hard-working professionals on the far side of the cockpit door. Another year of friends, laughing, commiserating, being a crew together coast-to-coast. Once you do it, you’ll know what I mean.

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Which of course brings up–at least for me–pie in the sky. A lot this year; how can that be bad?

Fall brought those sunset departures from the California shore, explaining where the term “Gold Coast” came from if you bother to look:

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And of course I always do–and if you follow this blog, you know I share the view with you. And here’s that magic moment, the million dollar view, cruising east at dusk: the sky burns red and fiery orange, halfway from day to night, the moon caught rising in between:

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Not all of the stunning views are as noble or uplifting. The sad stuff gets your attention in a different way.

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After super-storm Sandy, here’s the approach to JFK, crossing the shore: no lights, no power, beach sand driven blocks inland.

Heartbreaking to see, but there’s no avoiding it is there?

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That’s where sunset comes as a relief. From the darkness comes time to reflect, to savor the perfect world humming around you in the cockpit. Regardless of where you’ve been, it’s always coming home that’s the best. It’s been a great year, great flying–looking for more of the same in 2013. And if you stick around this blog next year, you’ll have the inside view, too.

See you then.

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Dear Santa: The Airline Pilot Wish List

Posted in air travel, airline, airline cartoon, airline pilot blog, cartoon with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 9, 2012 by Chris Manno

December 2012

Subject: Wish List

From: Blog, JetHead

To: Claus, Santa

Sir:

As you know, it’s that time of year again. How about if we go ahead and stipulate the facts from last year: no, I haven’t been “good,” whatever that is, and neither have you so let’s drop that subject.

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And yes, I have more than I probably deserve, what with a good gig in the Boeing left seat, seniority to be a little picky (still flying the all-nighter, Fatman? Bummer.) trip-wise.  So this year, on my Wish List, I’m asking for less:

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For starters, how about a little less “ice fog?” I know, for you it’s “no big deal,” Rudolph, red nose, blah-blah-blah. But for me, it’s a Category III approach hand-flown to a fifty foot decision height (admit it: you’re cheating with the “red nose” crap, aren’t you?) which is no easy trick. Yes, I do appreciate the HUD you sent me on the Boeing two years ago . . .

. . . but despite the cosmic technology, less ice fog, more VFR this winter, please.

Also, less “fine dining.” I’m not talking about in flight, like this:

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Or the usual Pie in the Sky that I keep eating to see if I can grow an ass as fat as yours:

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Instead, I’m referring to the more typical “in airport” fine dining like this:

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This is more the norm for “fine” airport “dining,” and it’s all too familiar to have not enough time for anything other than a five minute “shove a burger down your throat” experience at an airport food court between flights. Or worse, depending on the layover hotel and the local weather.

Which is another thing an airline pilot could do with less of: layover hotels.

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I know you never do overnights in hotels, but those of us who do at least 150 days a year would appreciate a little less. Because depending on the location, the foraging for food can become pretty grim as well.

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Got Imodium?

In fact, there’s the main thing all flight crews would like less of: less hotels, lines, vans, crowds, airport “security,” bad nights of sleep in noisy hotels, scant food, long hours and if you’re still with me, here’s the one thing we all want more of: home.

Because on Christmas, just like every holiday, birthday, anniversary or significant milestone any family ever dreamed up, there will be flight crews in the air or worse, stuck on the ground in “that hotel,” wishing for a little more home and a lot less away.

I know, Fatman, that isn’t the deal: flying means away–a lot. So just knowing that of the things I want less I’m going to get more and more; and the things I want more I’m going to have less and less (what are we up to now, 19 flight days a month?), we’ll just forget about your “list,” I’ll behave as awful as I always do this year, and we’ll call it even.

Thanks for nothing,

JetHead

P.S. When are you going to learn how to bid?

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