March 6, 2013
I recently had my first medical diversion ever.
It was the first flight of a three-day trip, JFK to LAX, and the weather was good all the way across the country. About 300 miles east of Denver, we got a call from the lead flight attendant. A passenger had opened an overhead bin to retrieve her bag and another bag fell out onto the top of a 56 year-old gentleman’s head. The flight attendant told us that the man said he was fine, but she thought we should know. I thought that would be the end of it.
Twenty minutes later, the flight attendant called again. The man now complained of pains radiating from his head down through his neck and shoulders. The Captain asked her to get all the pertinent information to us (we have a form for that) then to see if there’s a doctor on board (there frequently is). We then initiated a call over the radio to our on-call medical resource, called STAT-MD, which lets us talk to a doctor for advice on handling the situation.
While we were doing that, the flight attendants did find a doctor on board, who discovered that the “patient” was taking a medication called coumadin, a blood thinner. This increased the doctor’s concern with the symptoms, and when we relayed that bit of information to the doctor at STAT-MD, he advised us to get this passenger on the ground immediately for further diagnosis. At this point, we were about 100 miles east of Denver so we started down from Flight Level 380 (38,000 feet).
The passenger didn’t want to divert, but it wasn’t his call. I suppose we can all imagine the kind of liability issues that could arise if we elected to skip the diversion and the man’s condition became critical during the last 90 minutes of flight to L.A.
We were pretty busy during the descent, getting out the approach charts for Denver, briefing the approach, calling Denver Operations to get a gate assignment, and running checklists for the descent and approach. Normally one of us would make a PA to the passengers, but we were so busy that we had to delegate that to the lead flight attendant. Declaring a medical emergency really gets you some expeditious handling by Air Traffic Control, and we got cleared straight in to the airport and got taxi clearance right to the gate, with other planes holding for us.
The passenger/patient was met by medical personnel, who escorted him off the plane. Then we got some fuel and a new dispatch release to continue our flight. We were on the ground for 40 minutes. As we continued on our way to Los Angeles, I wondered just how much of an inconvenience this would end up being for that passenger. There was a good chance he wouldn’t make it to L.A. until the next day, but we’d never know the rest of the story.
February 6, 2013
Saturday was a perfect day, with the winds forecast to be five knots or less all day. We arrived at the airport, and after checking out the airplane (a Cessna 172), it was time for Tyler and me to start our experiment. First he set up some cameras in the plane. He had two iPhones, which he set up on top of the forward panel, one directed at each of us. A digital camera was mounted on top of the center of the panel facing forward. Another camera was on a tripod placed behind the seats, with one leg in each of the seat back pockets. Lastly, he had a digital audio recorder that he plugged in to one of the audio phone outlets in the back seat.
We got in the plane and strapped in, Tyler in the left seat and me in the right. (Since this was a trainer, we had identical dual yoke and controls.) Before starting the engine, I went over the panel so that he understood where all the controls are. To anyone who might say that this “instruction” is beyond the scope of the experiment, I would point out that the plane and the sim aren’t identical in layout. In fact, if we looked at each of the C-172s on the ramp we’d see differences among the various models. For example, in some of them the flap handle has labeled detents for each flap setting (and that’s what Tyler was expecting). But in this plane, the flap handle was a three position toggle switch. To put flaps down, hold the toggle down and watch the flap indicator to see how much flaps you have. Flip the toggle up and the flaps retract without the need to hold the switch. I wanted to be sure he understood the operation, as it’s easy to accidentally retract flaps by moving the switch inadvertently past the center detent.
Besides the flap handle, the only other things that Tyler would need to touch during the flight were the yoke, the throttle and the trim wheel. I showed him the operation of the trim wheel and explained its use. It’s a convenience, used to alleviate elevator control pressure, but not a requirement. You can muscle through those control forces, but it makes things a lot easier if you have the plane trimmed for fingertip control.
Next, I pointed out the Directional Gyro (DG) and explained that we would set it to runway heading just prior to takeoff. Tyler was hoping for runway 12L, which he had flown on his simulator. He was used to the headings needed for the pattern from this runway.
After turning all the cameras on, I started the engine and contacted Ground Control for taxi clearance, requesting a closed pattern (i.e., we would be returning to land), and we proceeded to the runway. On a straightaway portion of the taxiway, I let Tyler put his feet on the rudders just to get the feel of taxiing the plane. We got to the run up area and ran the Before Takeoff checklist, ensuring that everything was ready to go. I then called the tower and advised the controller that we were ready for takeoff.
The tower controller threw us a curve, clearing us for takeoff on Runway 7 with instructions to land on Runway 12L. This is a significant change, since it wouldn’t be a standard rectangular pattern, and I felt that it was unfair to not briefly discuss what he had to do. You only get one chance to make a first attempt and I didn’t want to see it ruined for Tyler because he was having trouble with situational awareness. So I told the controller that I had a student pilot on board and we needed a minute. I took out the airport diagram and showed Tyler the relation of the runways and how he could takeoff and simply turn to enter the downwind for 12L. He was satisfied, and I advised the Tower that we were ready. My biggest regret about the experiment is that I didn’t simply ask the controller for a takeoff on 12L, which I am sure would have been approved.
Here’s where I made a serious omission: I neglected to verify and set runway heading on the DG once we lined up on the runway. I got us on the centerline and told Sparks “Your airplane.” He advanced the throttle, a little timidly at first, and we started rolling. As I expected, he began drifting left of centerline. The plane wants to go left due to several factors, and right rudder is required to keep it tracking straight ahead.
He had drifted halfway from the centerline to the left edge of the runway, and I was mentally allowing him about five more feet before I would take over. But at this point, he finally applied sufficient rudder to stop the drift. (By the way, if I had taken over, my plan was to initiate the climb and then turn the plane back over to him to see if he could make the landing.) His takeoff was very good and I was pleasantly surprised to see that he didn’t over-rotate, another very common error for first-timers. If you rotate too fast or too much, the airspeed can bleed off dangerously, running the risk of a stall very low to the ground.
Climbout was pretty good. We drifted a little more left, but now that we were airborne there was no major concern with that. At about 500′ above the ground (2700′ msl) Tyler started a left turn to bring the plane around to downwind for 12L. He was looking for a heading of 300° and at this time he noticed that the heading on the gyro was way off from what it should have been. I quickly reset the gyro to our magnetic heading (indicated by a magnetic compass attached to the center of the windshield). Ugh, I felt horrible for missing that before takeoff!
Tyler leveled off at pattern altitude of 3000′ msl and began accelerating much more than he should have for staying in the landing pattern. We got up to almost 120 knots before he realized that he needed to reduce power. As we continued on downwind, I finally made a small gesture, pointing left, to indicate that we needed to turn base soon. I wouldn’t have done this if we had been at an uncontrolled field, but I didn’t want the Tower to have to call us to ask about our extended downwind.
At this point, I watched as Sparks slowed the plane and extended flaps. He settled on 20° of flaps, which was his plan ahead of time and is fine for landing. As we turned final, we were really coming to the critical part of the experiment. As long as we were in the air, there was really little he could do to put us in immediate danger. But close to the ground I had to be ready to take the plane. Of course, that’s true for any student pilot making a first landing. The main difference is that I would normally be giving constant verbal feedback during this phase. But the rules were that I couldn’t say anything.
His glide path control was pretty good. We got a little low at one point, but he recognized it and shallowed the descent until we were back on path. As we got closer, the VASI (Visual Approach Slope Indicator) became discernible and I pointed it out. Again, there might be some who find fault with that, and perhaps I shouldn’t have said anything. Maybe it’s the flight instructor in me, but I didn’t see any problem with pointing it out. I didn’t discuss how to interpret it or make any suggestions about his control of the plane.
Coming up on the runway threshold, I was waiting to see if he would make some of the classic first-time mistakes. It’s very easy to misjudge the round-out of the descent and the flare for landing. A common mistake is to pull back too much, causing the plane to balloon upward as the airspeed drops off toward stall. If this happened, I’d have to take over. Another mistake is simply to fly the plane into the ground without breaking the glide at all. This will cause a nose wheel strike, which can damage the plane (though it will usually be a survivable landing). I couldn’t risk damage to the plane, and I’d have to take over if I saw this coming too.
But Tyler did a beautiful job, bleeding off the power as he shallowed the descent. We drifted a little right, but not as much as he drifted left during takeoff. I was watching airspeed and descent rate closely, with my attention constantly shifting from outside to the instruments. We touched down at a very acceptable speed and began rolling down the runway with power at idle. At this point, I was satisfied that he had done it, and said “I’ve got the airplane.”
Tower had cleared us for “the option,” which meant that we could have done either of four things: (1) make a low pass and go around, (2) make a touch and go (i.e. land, than apply power and take off), (3) make a stop and go (land, come to a full stop, then apply power and takeoff), or (4) make a full stop landing and taxi clear of the runway. I told Tyler I had the plane and I retracted the flaps and applied power for takeoff. It was my turn.
Once on downwind, I asked Tyler if he wanted to go do some more flying and I could actually give him instruction, but he was happy to call it a day, so we just returned for a full-stop landing. As we taxied in, I congratulated him and told him that he had just made a mockery of my entire life. When we tied down the airplane, we had logged .5 hours on the plane.
Afterward, we headed off for lunch and relived the experience. I think we both agreed that the perfect weather, especially dead calm winds, made it possible, but that doesn’t take away from the accomplishment. Tyler acknowledged that the real airplane is a whole lot different than flying the simulation software, but it obviously gave him the basics. I think he also said that some of the online discussion beforehand about what to expect actually helped him.
Even though the experiment was a success, I can’t say how common Tyler’s experience would be. So if you’ve spent a few hours flying Microsoft Flight Simulator, and now think you’re ready to solo, I’d still say: Don’t.
After he got home, Tyler posted this YouTube video of the flight. Unfortunately, the backseat camera video, which was supposed to show the instrument panel, was not usable.
January 25, 2013
If you’ve fooled around with flight simulation software for your desktop computer, you know that it can be pretty realistic. You can “fly” just about any type of airplane, from almost any airport in the world. If you go the extra mile and add rudder pedals, a control wheel and a throttle to your setup, you’ve got everything except the full motion of a multimillion dollar simulator like the ones used to train airline pilots.
Is it possible for a person to get proficient enough on this home software to be able to takeoff and land a real airplane — with no other instruction or experience? Recently, I came across a discussion on the internet by a 46-year-old electrical engineer in California who proposed that he could do just that. He said he had “tons of hours” on his flight simulation software and felt confident that he could fly an airplane around the pattern and land it safely.
I read his posting and the discussion it generated with great interest, and I even chimed in with my opinion. Flying a real airplane with only simulator experience isn’t impossible (the “Barefoot Bandit” apparently did it), but I have to think it’s extremely rare, and was firmly of the belief that this guy wouldn’t be successful. My reasoning was that the simulation software just doesn’t give the feel of the controls and the aerodynamic load on the control surfaces, which will change depending on the airspeed. Also, the software provides an artificially stable experience, whereas flight in a real airplane will provide completely different sensations.
The guy proposing this experiment, Tyler Sparks, already had an instructor lined up to fly with him, but as the online discussion continued, it seemed as if the flight would never take place. Finally, he posted that the instructor had backed out. At this point I was so interested in the experiment that I volunteered to be the instructor/safety pilot. There was no doubt in my mind that I’d have to take over the plane, but I wanted to see just how well he could do on his first time in a plane.
The basic rules for the experiment were laid out by Tyler in the first post of his online discussion:
The rules are that he [the instructor/safety pilot] will do all the preflight checks and the plane will be ready to go. He will communicate with the tower for clearance and such, and will taxi us out to the runway and line me up for take off. Weather will have to be clear and calm. After that, he can’t say or do anything to assist me, from the moment I push in the throttle. If we encounter any other air traffic, which is unlikely at this location, he will take over and, steer us clear, then I’m back on the controls. Once I (hopefully) land, he would take over and taxi us back to the parking area.
I talked to Tyler the week before heading out, just to cover some basics about the flight. The most important thing to me was his clear understanding that my main concern was safety and preventing any damage to the airplane. It was agreed that if I said “I have the airplane” at any time during the flight, he would relinquish controls without hesitation or discussion.
I flew out to meet him the day after Thanksgiving, and admit that I had some misgivings. There was really not much upside to this trip for me, other than satisfying my curiosity, and lots of downside if anything went wrong. Our rendezvous at the airport went as planned, and I was relieved to find that my initial impression from our phone conversations was confirmed. Tyler wasn’t some crazy kid. He was intelligent and very personable, and right away I felt better about my decision to participate.
We discussed the flight, reconfirming the “rules of engagement,” and it was agreed he would pick me up at 8:30 the next morning. I’ll post the rest of the story next week…
July 27, 2012
There’s an old saying that every student pilot has heard at some point in their training: “The three most useless things to a pilot are the runway behind them, the altitude above them, and the fuel they left behind.”
Pilots love to have lots of fuel, but it’s expensive to carry excessive amounts (called “tankering” in the biz), and the company doesn’t like to spend money unnecessarily. Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) dictate the minimum fuel loads required for a flight. For domestic operations, we must carry enough fuel to reach the destination airport, then fly to the most distant alternate airport (a suitable field selected based on weather forecasts), and then fly at normal cruise speed for another 45 minutes. (If you want to read the actual regulation for airlines, see FAR 121.639; for general aviation flights, see FAR 91.151 and FAR 91.167) In many cases, the company will pad this amount with “Contingency fuel” which is just what it sounds like, i.e., just a little extra for more options.
Fuel became an issue on one of my recent flights. We were flying from LAX to JFK, and it looked like we’d be about 20 minutes early. We were within an hour of landing and the weather looked good in New York, so it came as a surprise when New York Center gave us holding instructions. This was particularly unexpected since we were still at our cruise altitude of 39,000 feet. Most airborne holding occurs down lower, when we’re closer to the destination airport. The reason for the holding was weather on the arrival route.
The holding instructions were: “Hold northwest of the HOXIE intersection on J70, right hand turns, 20 mile legs. EFC 1850Z. Reduce speed at your discretion.” [HOXIE is one of thousands of aviation fixes in the country, simply defined as a Lat/Lon; they all have five character names. J70 is a defined route for high altitude traffic, a "highway in the sky."] We brought the power back a little to save fuel, slowing to about 240 knots indicated airspeed — still a safe speed for our clean (no flaps) configuration. Our true airspeed (TAS) was still around 445 knots. We programmed the FMC (Flight Management Computer) for the hold, then got to work developing a plan in case we couldn’t get in to JFK. These can be some of the busiest situations in airline flying, as we have to continuously monitor the weather situation and our fuel state.
The EFC is the “Expect Further Clearance” time. This is an important part of the clearance. If we were to lose communications, we would hold until that time and then proceed according to our flight plan, knowing that ATC would clear the path for us. It also gives us an idea of how long ATC expects us to hold, but that can vary significantly either way. I’ve been released from holding before completing one turn, and other times I’ve reached the EFC time only to be given a revised, much later, EFC.
As we made the first turn at HOXIE, I made the required call to ATC to let them know we were entering the hold. Then I got on the PA to let the passengers know what was going on. I’m sure there were a lot of groans in the cabin at that point, as everyone with connections started wondering just how bad the rest of their day was going to be. We looked at several possible divert airports, and Buffalo looked like the best option based on weather reports and proximity. It was within 100 miles of the hold, which is very close when you’re at 39,000′, so things would get busy if we decided to go there. We decided on a “bingo” fuel figure, i.e. the least amount of fuel we felt comfortable with before diverting. Then we got out the charts for Buffalo.
After about three turns in the holding pattern, the controller called to revise our EFC, making it 1920Z. We could now plainly see that we would reach our minimum fuel before the EFC. This might seem to dictate making the diversion now rather than waiting — why burn fuel for no good reason? — but again, it’s not unusual to be released from the hold prior to the EFC. Just to keep ATC in the loop, we let the controller know that we would have to divert before reaching the EFC and that Buffalo was our planned diversion airport. At this point, I was pretty sure we’d be shuffling off to Buffalo to refuel and wait out the weather.
Then, as often happens, New York Approach started accepting arrivals and we were given clearance to continue on our flight plan route. We advised our dispatcher via ACARS (Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System, a sort of on-board email system) that we were continuing towards JFK. This gets to be the tricky part, because we aren’t really assured of making it into JFK but now we’re getting farther from the alternate and burning more fuel. Our dispatcher calculated that we should have at least 11,000 lbs of fuel on board to divert from JFK to Buffalo with comfortable margins, and we concurred. If that did become necessary, we’d refuel at Buffalo and wait out the weather.
It was apparent as we continued to JFK that we would be going below that 11,000 pound number before landing. If it had been night with no other obvious options, we very likely would have just headed to Buffalo rather than get ourselves into a situation where our options disappeared. But in this case, it was mid-afternoon with good visibility for us and we could plainly see all of the scattered build-ups of cumulonimbus clouds. There were other suitable airports much closer to JFK (e.g. Bradley and Providence), and we could see that the weather was better to the north.
Approach control vectored us for the ILS to Runway 22L, and when it was all over, we shut down with just over 9,000 pounds of fuel — well above what would even be considered a “minimum fuel” state. (In the 757, we would declare “minimum fuel” when getting down to 4,500 lbs; we would declare “emergency fuel” at 3,500 lbs.] We were about an hour late, and it’s likely that some passengers missed their connections, but there was very little grumbling as they deplaned. Most reasonable people understand that there are factors out of our control.
As I walked off the plane, heading to the crew room, I heard one woman asking the gate agent how to get to terminal three. I volunteered to be her guide since I was heading that way. She had a connection for Moscow, scheduled for 4:10 pm. It was already after 4:00 but maybe the Moscow flight was late due to the weather. It was a long walk, but I got her to the gate and the flight was late. So I know of at least one passenger who got to where she wanted to be that night.
June 15, 2012
Do you hold on to your old issues of Air & Space magazine? If so, dig out the September 2003 issue and take a look at the cover. You’ll see a picture of a vintage 1931 Stinson Tri-Motor. This is the oldest surviving American Airlines plane, NC-1153, and I was fortunate enough to find myself at the controls of that very plane recently.
The article in that issue tells about this plane’s owner, Greg Herrick, whose passion is finding and restoring vintage aircraft. He currently owns 42 planes, many of them literally one of a kind, and has several on display at the Anoka County airport, just north of Minneapolis-St. Paul.
I got invited to ride in this plane because a friend had won a raffle. Every year he contributes to a worthy charity, the Captain Jason Dahl scholarship fund, and this year they awarded two random contributors (and a guest) a ride in the Stinson. When my friend won the ride, he called me to be his guest because he felt pretty sure I would appreciate such an opportunity. He was right.
Before I get to describing the ride, let me say a little more about the charity. Jason Dahl was the captain of United Flight 93, which crashed into the Pennsylvania countryside on 9/11 after passengers overwhelmed the terrorists in the cockpit. Jason’s wife Sandy established the scholarship fund in his memory. Sadly, she passed away between the time I was invited and the day of the ride, so I missed the chance to meet her personally. The scholarship will continue, however, under the stewardship of some of Captain Dahl’s fellow United pilots.
I caught a jumpseat from D.C. into Minneapolis-St. Paul early on a Saturday and met my friend. We rented a car and set out for the Anoka County airport (identifier: ANE). When we got there, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that there was an airshow/fly-in going on. Lots of activity and some very interesting planes on display, including a privately owned T-38 Talon, the same type of plane that NASA astronauts fly. As we got out of the car, the Stinson was being rolled out of the hangar, so our timing was excellent. We were each given a multi-page liability disclaimer before setting foot on the plane. I initialed and signed in a dozen or more places, but I admit to not even reading it. Not really concerned.
The plane was being flown by retired Northwest Airlines Captain Harry Thibault, with Greg in the right seat. After we boarded, Harry started the three engines and got clearance to taxi out. Everyone at the airshow stopped to watch, and lots of cameras were pointed our way. We had the windows in the back open, and they stayed that way throughout the flight. The day couldn’t have been better for such a flight: 70° with scattered puffy clouds at about 4,000 feet and winds out of the northwest at seven knots.
We headed off to a nearby grass strip at the Forest Lake Airport, where we stopped for a while. The plane drew a lot of attention there as well. For the flight back to Anoka County, we each got a turn at the controls of this wonderful plane. I found it to be very sensitive in yaw, and I seemed to be dancing on the rudder pedals the entire time. I flew it all the way to short final, at which point Harry took over for the landing. Approach was at about 80-85 knots. We made a zero-flap approach, which is standard for this plane since it’s not equipped with flaps.
After the flight, Greg gave us a private tour of his hangar, The Golden Wings Flying Museum. He has a fascinating array of very rare vintage planes. His collection includes a Ford Tri-Motor, serial #10. This particular plane has an incredible history, and was piloted at various times by several famous flyers, including Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart. For someone who usually flies modern jetliners, one of my biggest thrills on this trip was sitting in the left seat of that plane and feeling a link to the pioneers of flight.
November 7, 2011
My last trip in October included a lot of firsts for me. The trip began in New York and stopped in Amsterdam, Mumbai, Amsterdam again, then back to New York. We had approximately 24 hours at each destination. I’ve been to Amsterdam several times, and it’s a nice trip. The departure from New York is in the afternoon, and arrival is just after midnight eastern time (a little after 6 a.m. and still dark in Amsterdam). As international flights go, it’s not too hard on the sleep schedule.
We departed Amsterdam at 10 a.m. for Mumbai. This was my first flight as an airline pilot completely outside the U.S. (I had done some flying in Japan in light aircraft many years ago). As the relief pilot for this leg, I went on break about 30 minutes after takeoff. When I returned to the cockpit a little over two hours later, we were over northern Turkey, just south of the Caspian Sea. Another first. Up to this time, I had never flown farther east than Istanbul. I took over the flying duties as the guy flying this leg went on his break. The next couple of hours were very busy in the cockpit due to the terrain we were overflying. When we’re over a wide area of high elevation, we always have to plan an escape route in case of a sudden loss of pressurization.
The oxygen masks that drop from the overhead panel will only last about 15 minutes, so we would have to descend quickly to where the air is breathable — about 10,000 feet. But for long periods on this flight we were over areas with a minimum safe altitude much higher than this. In one case, I saw a Grid MORA of 21,000 feet. (Grid MORA is the Minimum Off Route Altitude within each grid on the map). This was another first for me: highest terrain I’ve flown over.
Each flight segment had an associated diversion plan, which the company very thoughtfully included in our Airway Manual. All we had to do is load the appropriate emergency route for each segment as we proceeded eastbound, then make sure we were both aware of the planned escape route.
To top it all off, we landed in Mumbai at about 10 p.m. local time on the first day of Diwali, or Festival of Lights, one of the most important festivals of the year for Hindus. Every populated area we saw in India had continuous fireworks going off. It was mesmerizing; I’ve never seen such a display of non-stop, widespread fireworks. On final approach, we could see them going off between us and the airport. I’m not sure anyone was actually trying to hit us, but one rocket burst above and to the left of us. The celebration was still going strong an hour later when we arrived at our layover hotel.
One final first for me in Mumbai: the time zone was a half hour off, i.e. it was Zulu+5.5 hours (EDT+9.5).
July 14, 2011
I recently had an extensive delay on a flight from New York to Las Vegas. We pushed back from the gate on time, and as I went to start the engines I could see the dark skies to the west, our intended direction of flight. As we waited on the ramp for clearance to taxi, I heard the Ground Controller telling several planes to switch back to the Clearance Delivery frequency for a new route of flight. That’s never a good sign, and it tells us that certain departure routes are closed due to weather.
After being cleared to taxi to the end of a long line of planes, we were also told to switch radios to pick up a new clearance. Our intended departure fix, Robbinsville VOR, was shut down because of thunderstorms, and our new route would take us farther to the north. But the area of weather was extensive, and for a while it effectively shut down all departures from JFK Airport.
Heavy rain showers hit the airport and the line of planes remained stationary. We shut down our engines to save fuel, running our much less fuel-demanding APU (Auxiliary Power Unit) to provide electrical and air conditioning needs.
The delay was extensive, and we made several PAs to our passengers with updates on the weather and our (lack of) progress. In a situation like this, things can change quickly, and once the weather moves through the area, the controllers will get out the departures as fast as New York Center can handle them. We want to be ready to go when this happens.
Why am I going into so much detail about a delay that’s not all that uncommon? Because there’s a new wrinkle in the airline business, and it’s called The Passenger Bill of Rights. This bill became law this past Spring in response to some situations where passengers were essentially held hostage on an airplane for several hours. With the new law, an airline can be fined up to $27,500 per passenger if the airplane is on the ground for more than three hours without giving passengers an opportunity to deplane.
It sounds good on the face of it, but there are always some unintended consequences, and here’s how it affected us that evening. As we reached the two-hour point, we realized that another hour on the ground would make our company potentially liable for a fine approaching five million dollars. So we contacted our operations folks, and the decision was made to taxi back to the gate. The reason for making the decision at the two-hour point is that getting back to the gate would take some time since we had to get out of line and find an open route back to the terminal.
As it turned out, we got back to our ramp area after about 40 minutes of maneuvering by the ground controller to get other planes out of our way in this near-gridlock situation. Once on the ramp, we couldn’t park at the gate due to lightning — ramp personnel can’t come out when there’s lightning, for their own safety. With time running out on the three-hour limit, a mobile lounge was brought up to the plane so that a door could be opened and passengers could be given their legal right to deplane. We made it with eight minutes to spare.
Four or five passengers did take the opportunity to get off, and after getting some more fuel, we pushed back again with a fresh three-hour clock. The thunderstorm had passed and the airport was open, but the taxiways were still full of planes and it took nearly an hour before we even got cleared to taxi out from the ramp area.
As we approached the two-hour point again, we had a decision to make. Up ahead was a turn onto taxiway Foxtrot. Once we made that turn it would be next to impossible for us to get out of line and return to the gate. Not wanting to make a multi-million dollar decision on our own, we called our dispatcher (we’re allowed to use our phones on the ground for operational necessity). I explained the situation, including our position in line (number 19 or 20 for takeoff) and the departure rate (about one takeoff every two minutes). If we decided to return to the gate a second time, it would probably result in a flight cancellation, or at least the necessity to call out a fresh crew, which would probably take two hours or more.
The crew would get paid for the flight even if it cancelled, but pilots tend to be mission-oriented. Our dispatcher deferred to us, and we ultimately decided to take the gamble. We ended up taking off with 18 minutes to spare.
The bottom line is that because of our return to the gate, we experienced another two hour and 40 minute delay before getting airborne. With the additional time spent at the gate getting refueled, we took off nearly six hours late. Had we not returned to the gate, we probably would have shaved close to two hours off this.
So, the Passenger Bill of Rights may be great in concept (and was probably appreciated by the few who elected to get off our plane). But ironically, it can actually increase the delay that passengers experience. Our flight, which was scheduled to arrive in Las Vegas at 8:40 P.M. made it to the gate at 2:55 A.M. I was fresh as a daisy…the topic of an upcoming blog.
And now for something completely different: as promised earlier, here’s a picture of another airport’s runways. Can you name the airport? Hint: it’s not in the U.S.
The difficulty factor is high, I know, but you guys so easily identified Boston that I had to make this one tougher. If no one gets this by my next blog, I’ll give some hints. (And I’m going to try to step up the frequency of these blogs.)
May 27, 2011
Like a lot of airline pilots, I’m always on the lookout for a good trip to pick up, either to add to my schedule or trade for a less desirable trip. “Open time” is what we call the list of trips with no current pilot assignment. The list is dynamic, and trips pop up throughout the month when assigned pilots become unavailable for some reason. Maybe they had to bow out due to jury duty or military duty (a lot of airline pilots are also in the Reserve). Maybe someone broke a leg skiing or had some other medical situation.
Looking through the open time list is like panning for gold, and occasionally you hit pay dirt. Who would want to trade a three-day domestic trip, with eight separate flights and worth only 15 hours of pay, for a nice, leisurely three-day trip to Istanbul, with just two flights and 22 hours of pay? Answer: almost everyone. After all, we get paid by the hour, so increasing the ratio of block hours to working days is a priority for most pilots. An Istanbul trip won’t stay on the open time list for even a full day before somebody snags it. It also doesn’t hurt that a trip of this length will have a third pilot on board, so that each pilot can have a rest en route. The flight pay continues during the rest break. (I’ve heard this affectionately referred to as “dozing for dollars.”)
I was recently able to trade a three-day Las Vegas for a three-day Dublin. The trans-Atlantic trip was worth almost four more hours of flight pay, and because it’s been a long time since I’ve been to Dublin, I was happy when my swap request went through. There wouldn’t be a third pilot on this short international trip; only flights with a scheduled block time of over eight hours have that extra pilot (this is gate-to-gate time, not just flight time).
Report time was 7:30 pm for a 9:00 pushback from the gate. That meant I would be flying on the backside of the clock, getting into Dublin around 3 a.m. Eastern time (8 a.m. in Dublin). Sleep management is an important consideration for these flights, especially when there’s no relief pilot on board, so I got to the airport early and took a two-hour nap in a comfortable recliner before report time.
I flew the leg going over, and the trip was uneventful. But it was quite windy in Dublin for the approach. They were calling the winds “two four zero at two four gust three seven.” which meant that the winds were aligned about 40° off the runway heading for runway 28 (which, not coincidentally, is about 280°).
The crosswind component of the wind can be found using simple high school trigonometry: Multiply the wind by the sine of the angle between the winds and the runway heading. In practice, most pilots will make a simple mental estimate or consult a crosswind conversion chart that’s available in our kits. In this case, a gust of 37 knots equates to a crosswind of about 24 knots.
Because of these strong winds, we briefed the possibility of windshear, and reviewed the windshear recovery procedures in case we had to go around. Major fluctuations in airspeed are what we’re looking for, because this can result in a sudden loss of lift, which is unacceptable close to the ground. If we see an instantaneous loss of 20 knots of airspeed, for example, this would be a clear indication of windshear, and we would discontinue the approach. At that point, we’d have to decide whether it’s worth another try or a divert to a more suitable airport. And when I say “another try,” it’s not that we just decide we’re going to cinch our seatbelts and get through the windshear on the second attempt. These conditions change rapidly, and a second approach may not have any problem at all.
Coming down final, with the airspeed back to about 145 kts, our instruments showed the winds at 1,000 feet above the ground to be a little over 50 knots. I glanced down and saw a ground speed of 97 kts at one point, and the gusty winds made it necessary to make constant adjustments in the power. We were seeing only minor fluctuations in airspeed, so it didn’t look like windshear was going to be a concern.
On a crosswind landing, we hold the nose into the wind so that the plane flies down the extended runway centerline. We obviously can’t land with our nose turned to the left, though, so as we get close to the runway, we align the nose with the runway using right rudder and roll in more left aileron so that the plane doesn’t drift downwind (we need to land on the runway!). This is what is meant by “cross controls,” a term you might hear from pilots when talking about a crosswind landing.
Of course, I probably wouldn’t tell you all this if I had made a bad landing; I’m happy to say it was a good one. One of the flight attendants told me, on the way to our layover hotel, that she had been braced for a firm “arrival,” and was pleasantly surprised. (Not sure how I should take that.)
It was windy for the duration of our stay in Dublin, and the next morning the winds were even stronger, gusting to 53 knots! I did the walk-around with one hand on my hat to keep from losing it. After completing my pre-flight of the plane, I turned and saw Air Force One landing. I waved, but I didn’t see anyone wave back.
March 11, 2011
I’m just back from recurrent training — two days of fun and games in the simulator. It’s kind of like a trip to the dentist: not something you look forward to, but it feels pretty good when it’s over. And it’s definitely worthwhile.
Each day we showed up at 5 a.m. for the briefing, then went into the “box of pain” at 6:30 for a four-hour session. The first day covers a number of real-life scenarios with some approaches and situations we rarely encounter in day-to-day flying. They don’t just throw random emergencies at us; it’s all pretty tightly scripted to get the most out of the very expensive time in the simulator. The two pilots alternate between flying duties and non-flying duties. Good crew coordination is a big part of the training.
We flew some approaches we don’t often see in the real world, including a localizer only approach (an ILS without a glideslope), an RNAV/RNP approach (a GPS-based approach with several special requirements that the crew must consider), and CAT III and CAT II ILS (very low visibility landings using the plane’s auto-land capability).
We had an engine failure on takeoff from Orlando on a hot day with a heavy airplane, which is a worst-case scenario for an engine failure (the four H’s that will decrease aircraft performance are High, Hot, Heavy and Humid). We had another engine failure flying out of Costa Rica later in the session. Both of these scenarios ended with single-engine approaches in low visibilty.
We also had two situations testing our use of proper procedures when flying the trans-oceanic track system. One was a divert from our track due to weather avoidance, and the other was an engine failure while over the ocean, requiring us to initiate a diversion.
The last scenario I recall was a pressurization failure while over critically high terrain. This presents some unique problems, because we can’t just zoom down like we would if terrain weren’t an issue. Again, we have special procedures that we have to execute.
On the second day we do more of the same, plus we have a Line Oriented Evaluation (LOE), which is a complete flight during which some abnormal situation will arise. Because it’s done in real time, they always pick a short flight. In our case, New York to Philadelphia.
The LOE incorporates all the things we would do for a normal flight, including pre-flight preparation, reviewing the flight plan, pushing back from the gate, starting engines, etc. This exercise checks the crew’s ability to work as a team, using available resources to manage the flight. You never know what kind of problem might crop up.
On this particular LOE we had an engine that began to surge erratically halfway to Philadelphia. We ran all the appropriate checklists and made an uneventful landing with the bad engine back at idle power and using only partial flaps, as dictated by the emergency procedures. There was nothing dramatic, and the instructor had very few items to discuss during the debrief, which is always a sign that things went well.
After the LOE we still had some time available in the sim. I was given an overweight landing in Jacksonville, Florida. [The maximum takeoff weight in the 767-300ER can be as high as 412,000 pounds, but the maximum landing weight is 320,000. In an emergency requiring a landing soon after takeoff, we will exceed that limitation.] The considerations for this landing are to minimize the descent rate (impact) at touchdown and then to spread out the deceleration over the entire length of the runway to try to avoid overheating the brakes. After any overweight landing, a logbook entry is required and a thorough inspection of the airframe must be done before the next flight.
As we rolled out, I looked up to see a 747 on short final coming right at us! I quickly considered my options. Keying the mike and broadcasting on the Tower frequency probably wouldn’t have been a bad idea, something like “Aircraft on short final to Runway Seven, go around! There’s an aircraft on the runway!” The only other thing we could do would be to get off the runway. As I started to push the throttles forward to make a dash for the taxiway, the instructor piped up and said, “Disregard that plane. I hit a wrong button back here.” So we just watched as the 747 passed close overhead. At least if it hit us, the impact would be painless.
Before we left the sim, I asked our instructor to recreate this situation so I could get a picture, but this is the best I could do.
So now, with my “just flossed” feeling, I’m ready to head back to normal, uneventful flying in the real world. Next stop: Madrid.
February 24, 2011
I should be in Stockholm right now, but instead I’m sitting at home typing this. We had several delays last night and ultimately timed out —i.e., we couldn’t make the flight to Stockholm because we would have been on duty more than 16 hours by the time we landed, which is against the rules.
The first big delay was due to the howling winds at Kennedy Airport in New York, gusting up to 51 knots out of the northwest according to the ATIS (Automatic Terminal Information Service, the airport’s recorded weather). This limited the usable runways to just 31L and 31R, and that meant delays getting airborne. Kennedy has two other runways, but the gusty winds would have created a direct crosswind.
The ground congestion made it tough for the ramp controllers to get planes in and out of the ramp area, and we waited close to an hour for clearance to push off the gate. After starting an engine, we shut down the APU as usual. [The Auxiliary Power Unit is a small turbine engine that provides air and electrical power when the engines aren't running, and supplies the pressurized air necessary to start an engine.] As we taxied out, an alert message popped up on our EICAS screen: APU FUEL VAL. Consulting our reference handbook, I found that this message meant that the APU fuel valve wasn’t positioned correctly. Checking another onboard manual told me that it wasn’t something the crew can deal with on their own. This one would require a trip back to the gate.
Back at the gate, maintenance decided that the APU couldn’t be fixed right away, and would have to be “deferred.” So we had to use alternative means of starting that first engine (i.e. an external air cart).
A deferred APU is more of a nuisance than anything else, but for trans-oceanic flights it also becomes a safety consideration. We fly under the ETOPS program, which allows a twin-engine plane to be more than 60 minutes of flying time from a diversionary airport. One of the requirements of ETOPS is to have a working APU as a backup power source in case of an engine failure.
Because of this, the folks in operations decided to use our plane for a flight to LAX and swap us to a plane with a working APU. The plane they had in mind was due to land in about a half hour. As you can imagine, it takes time to clean and cater an arriving plane and then move all the baggage from one plane to another, not to mention the people. Our posted departure time of 11:30 pm left us with only 45 minutes of buffer to be off the gate within our duty day.
The whole process took longer than planned, and we didn’t make it. When we hit the time limit, we had been on duty for almost seven hours. Add to that the nine-plus hours of duty that lay ahead for the flight and we would exceed 16 hours.
As a footnote to this, you may find it interesting that the 16-hour limit is a Federal regulation for domestic flights, but not for international flights. In other words, we could have volunteered to exceed that limit for our flight to Stockholm, whereas if we knowingly exceeded it for a flight within the U.S. we’d be subject to action by the FAA.
That’s the part that has me feeling bad today. We elected not to exceed the limit, and because of this the flight was canceled. Our decision was based on the fact that if something, anything, were to go wrong on that flight, one of the first things we would be asked in an investigation is “Why did you elect to go beyond a 16-hour duty day?” Fatigue has played a role in many accidents, and although we felt okay at 12:25 am (when the flight was canceled), what kind of shape would we be in nine hours later when we had to make the landing in Stockholm?
Next Page »