July 20, 2012
Over the past couple of weeks I’ve had the chance to talk with other pilots about the tragic Air France accident that occurred on June 1, 2009. These discussions were prompted by the recent release of the final accident report and the transcript of conservations in the cockpit.
In the initial aftermath of the crash, there was a lot of speculation that the plane had broken up in flight after encountering a severe thunderstorm over the Atlantic Ocean. The in-flight break-up, so the conventional wisdom went, resulted from the pitot-static system icing up, thereby giving erroneous information to the pilots who inadvertently over-stressed the airframe.
It was nearly two years later, in April 2011, that the main debris field was located. The pattern of debris suggested that the plane had been intact upon impact with the ocean. Incredibly, the Flight Data Recorder (FDR) was located, followed by the discovery of the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) a week later. With the information provided by these “black boxes,” the story of what happened becomes much clearer.
A few things about this accident jump out at me when I read the transcript. There never seems to be any clear understanding between the two First Officers as to who is actually flying the plane. The more junior FO is the designated “flying pilot” at this point, while the Captain is on his rest break, but the other, more senior, FO makes control inputs at some points. Basic crew resource management requires that one pilot be flying at any given time and that the division of duties is always made clear (e.g. “You have the airplane”, “I have the airplane”).
Here’s the part that I believe was a major contributor to the accident. On the Airbus, when one pilot makes a control input (e.g. pulling back on the sidestick), the other pilot has no indication of this control movement. Compare this to more traditional aircraft, which have control yokes in front of both pilots. On these planes, when one pilot moves the yoke, the other pilot’s yoke moves in tandem. If I hold full back stick, this is glaringly obvious to the other pilot. Apparently this is not so on an Airbus. In addition, when both pilots move their respective control sticks, the inputs are averaged. So, when the senior FO made an attempt to lower the nose of the plane, his efforts were stymied by the junior FO who was holding back stick throughout the descent.
Though all of these things were major contributors to this accident, the root problem seems to be a lack of basic airmanship. The initial response by the junior FO to the loss of airspeed information (initiating a climb) was not something an experienced pilot should ever do, particularly when already at a safe altitude. But this initial mistake was still very recoverable. All that was needed was to lower the nose to regain airspeed and fly out of trouble. Instead, he compounded the problem by continuing to hold back pressure throughout the descent, causing a perfectly good plane to stall all the way to impact.
Like every other pilot, I’d like to think that I wouldn’t have made these mistakes. But I wasn’t there, so I don’t know how the confusion of the situation would have affected me, and I hate being the Monday-morning quarterback. I am glad that the black boxes were recovered so we don’t have to wonder about some mysterious gremlin that might pop up unexpectedly on some other flight. Somehow, it’s reassuring to me to know that the cause was more mundane, and eminently avoidable.
July 13, 2012
Have you ever been on a delayed flight and had the crew come on the PA and say they would try to make up some of the time in the air? Unless your flight is over six hours, there’s usually not much they can do to shave off more than a couple of minutes. I recently heard this promise from a crew on the short flight from Washington D.C. to New York. This is a flight that’s already in the 40 minute range, give or take a couple of minutes, and it’s nearly impossible to improve on it — especially when you factor in the vectoring required during the approach phase of the flight.
Last night I was scheduled to fly the red-eye from Las Vegas to New York, and we were delayed about an hour because our plane was late getting in. I was at the departure gate before the plane showed up, and a few passengers came up to ask if we would be able to make up some of the time in the air. I took a look at our flight plan, and saw a flight time of 4:03. That’s pretty good for this flight; my personal best for that route is 3:56, and usually it falls in the 4:15 to 4:40 range, depending on winds aloft.
Looking deeper into the flight plan, I noticed that our dispatcher had used a Cost Index (CI) of 999, which is the max. This is a number we put into the Flight Management Computer, and it determines the power settings and airspeeds to be used throughout the flight. If we’re on time and the winds are extremely favorable, the CI might be set to zero, giving us maximum fuel efficiency since an on-time or early arrival is virtually assured. With the 999 setting, the company had decided that we would sacrifice fuel economy to make up as much time as possible and maybe get some passengers to their connecting flights in New York. The difference between these two settings on a flight of this length is probably around 10-15 minutes, but at the expense of a lot of extra fuel burn for the shorter flight.
After seeing the high CI, I explained to the passengers who were interested that we were already planning for the quickest flight possible, and wouldn’t be able to improve on it. We could ask for a direct routing once airborne, and at this time of night we’d probably get approval to fly directly to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania once we were handed off to Los Angeles Center. This sounds great, but the net savings for this trans-con flight is just a few minutes.
I try to avoid promising any time gains because there are so many variables that can make a liar out of me. On this flight, for example, we encountered greater than usual delays in the approach due to a temporary closure of one of the arrival runways. A landing aircraft had hit a bird when touching down, and they closed that runway while a ground vehicle did an inspection. This backed us up and probably added 10-15 minutes to our flight time — much more than any savings we got from direct routing or the higher cost index.
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.
March 23, 2012
Turbulence will make any airplane ride less enjoyable. Usually it’s just a minor annoyance and of little concern to frequent flyers. But when the severity increases, even seasoned travelers can become white-knuckle passengers.
When we describe turbulence in a PIREP (Pilot Report), we use four levels of severity: light, moderate, severe and extreme. Chapter 7 of the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) has a table that precisely defines these levels (including the slight difference between “turbulence” and “chop” for reporting purposes). Reading the definitions, you realize that most turbulence you’ve encountered has been light or moderate. The definition for severe turbulence includes the sentence: “Aircraft may be momentarily out of control.” Extreme turbulence is defined as “turbulence in which the aircraft is violently tossed about and is practically impossible to control. It may cause structural damage.” That’s getting pretty serious, and it’s unlikely you’d encounter severe or extreme turbulence in clear air. It’s within a mature thunderstorm cell where they become more likely, and that’s why we avoid those storms like the plague.
I well remember my worst ride and my only encounter with extreme turbulence: a night flight on November 11, 1995, Dulles to Albany in a British Aerospace J-32, a 19-seat turboprop that was built like a tank. Right after takeoff from Runway 19L, Dulles Departure control gave us a right-hand turn to 330° and a climb to 7,000 feet. As I rolled out of the turn, our weather radar became filled with red (red=severe, probably a level 4 or 5 cell). At first both of us on the flight deck questioned what we were seeing, and wondered if we had a faulty radar. Surely the controller wouldn’t direct us right into a cell.
But then all hell broke loose. Our altitude was changing +/- 1500 feet and the airspeed fluctuated wildly, going from stickshaker (stall) to Vmo (max operating speed, the red line) and back several times. You really don’t want to be operating above the red line. Beyond this speed the manufacturer does not guarantee that the plane will stay in one piece.
When we approached Vmo, I would try to reduce the speed by gently raising the nose and also reducing the power; when we approached stall, I lowered the nose to maintain airspeed. To avoid overstressing the wings and tail, I tried to be as gentle as I could with these control inputs, to keep the g-load at a minimum.
Throughout all this, the plane was shaking so violently that I finally told Tom, the Captain on this flight, “you have the power” while I used both hands on the control wheel. I couldn’t read the instruments, and could only keep a vague sense of our pitch and bank attitude from the artificial horizon. I remember very well my thoughts at the time: (1) Don’t go inverted and (2) I hope it doesn’t get worse. The extreme turbulence lasted probably less than three minutes (though it seemed much longer), and for the next 45 minutes we were in continuous moderate and occasionally severe turbulence. Tom made a few PAs to the passengers in an effort to assure them that everything was under control, but I’m sure some of them thought this was the end. I would have, if I had been in back. Sitting up front, we at least had the benefit of knowing what was going on, and had some (albeit small) feeling of control.
We assessed the situation once we knew we were out of the worst of it, and found that the plane wouldn’t pressurize — which made us wonder just how much the aircraft’s pressure vessel had been compromised. This meant that we couldn’t go above 10,000 feet, and our first inclination was to return to Dulles. But the airport had closed as soon as the weather hit them, minutes after we took off. To return would mean penetrating that same storm again, which was out of the question. We looked into other divert airports, but nothing sounded good in the weather reports. State College, Pennsylvania, was nearby, but a Continental Express plane had just made a go-around there, reporting gusts to 50 knots during the approach.
So, after conferring with our dispatcher, we continued on to Albany . The turbulence abated north of Binghamton. When we shut down at Albany, the passengers didn’t move, and many of them had that 1000-yard stare. We both came into the cabin to talk to anyone who cared to vent or ask questions. After the passengers had gone, we made an entry in the logbook about the pressurization and the encounter with extreme turbulence. That write-up would require an inspection of the airframe before the plane was returned to service the next day.
Once we got to the hotel for our layover, we were both so keyed up we knew we wouldn’t be able to sleep for a while. Though I’m not much of a drinker, I probably could have used one that night. But our layover was less than 12 hours, so we settled for a pizza and couple of soft drinks, and sat in Tom’s room discussing how we had gotten in this situation and what we could have done differently. We came to the realization that no retelling of this event could adequately convey the feeling of being in an airplane that was nearly uncontrollable. You can believe that I will never knowingly penetrate a red cell. Deviate 200 miles to the west? No problem.
December 22, 2011
Yesterday the FAA released new rules governing pilot duty time and flight time limitations. The aim is to reduce the effects of fatigue, which was mentioned in the NTSB’s report on the fatal crash of a Colgan Air flight near Buffalo, New York, in February 2009.
An article in USA Today highlights some of the changes, including an increase from eight to ten hours for the minimum rest period between duty periods. The intent is for pilots to get eight hours of actual sleep between flights.
Anything you read on this subject is likely to say it’s the pilots fighting for these rules, and that the airlines are resisting change because it will raise their costs. Speaking only for myself, I was happy with the rules we had, and I’m concerned about the the new rules.
First of all, the entire thing strikes me as a typical knee-jerk reaction to an accident: If only we had the right law, this bad thing wouldn’t have happened. The NTSB report on the Buffalo accident mentioned pilot fatigue, which was the main reason for the push for these new rules. Yet the Board voted against making fatigue a contributing factor in that accident, instead focusing on the lack of experience of the pilots and their response to the situation (see this Wikinews article).
There’s nothing in the new rules which would have mitigated any pilot fatigue in this particular accident. It wasn’t that the pilots didn’t have enough rest time. It was how they used the time they had, and the fact that they considered a hotel room beyond their budget.
Other aspects of the new rules also give me concern. I commute to work, flying from the D.C. area to New York (either La Guardia or JFK International airport). Like well over half of my company’s New York-based pilots, I have chosen not to live near those airports. Getting to work on time and ready for work (i.e. rested) is my responsibility, and I take it seriously.
If I have a trip that signs in at 5 p.m., I will usually take the 10:30 a.m. shuttle. This allows me several backup flights in case I don’t make the 10:30 (e.g. no room on the flight or it cancels for some reason). If I know ahead of time that travel is iffy, perhaps due to a winter storm watch, I will commute up a day ahead of time and get a hotel room. I’ve even taken the train when flights were canceling. On a normal commuting day, once I get to the airport I often take a brief nap before report time.
The new rules address the commuting issue and seem to imply that time spent commuting to work will be counted against duty time. [In several articles, this commuting time is incorrectly referred to as “deadheading,” but a deadhead is a scheduled, positive-space flight which is part of a pilot’s trip, and it’s already included in duty time.] Does this mean my duty day starts at 10:30 a.m.? If so, I won’t have adequate time left in my duty day to fly my trip, and so will be forced to commute in a day early for every single trip.
Will this ensure that I’m adequately rested? No. You can lead a pilot to a rest period, but you can’t make him sleep. The only effect I can see is that I will lose an extra day of my life for every trip, not to mention the extra expense of getting a hotel (or maintaining a crash pad).
And conspicuously absent from this consideration are the pilots who drive three hours or more to get to work. Not exactly a restful experience (compared to my nap on my flight from D.C.). But commuting by car is invisible in the new rules.
Being fit and ready for duty has always been the individual responsibility of each pilot, and this won’t change. But the new rules will, I fear, have a negative impact on my quality of life.
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).
October 24, 2011
I’m right in the middle of studying to renew my flight instructor certificate, and thought I’d take a break to explain why. I became a CFI (Certificated Flight Instructor) back in 1980; one of the main motivations at that time was to find a way to build flying time without paying for every hour out of my own pocket. It’s a time-honored tradition.
Other pilot certificates, such as the private pilot license, commercial license or Airline Transport Pilot, have no expiration date. Once you earn them, you never have to repeat all that training. It is true that to exercise the privileges of your private pilot license you must be within two years of a Biennial Flight Review (BFR), but there’s no check ride involved.
The CFI has an expiration date printed right on it. Every two years, the holder of the certificate must apply for renewal. If it lapses, even by one day, the only way to get a new one is to repeat the entire course of training and a check ride. For an active flight instructor, renewal is just a matter of stopping by the FAA office and showing a record of the number of pilots you’ve trained (assuming they passed their check rides).
But I’m not an active instructor. I haven’t taught a student from scratch for almost 20 years. I used to give occasional instrument competency checks to instrument rated pilots, but I haven’t even done that in the last five years. My option is to complete a refresher course, either by attending a live weekend seminar (24 hours of classroom time) or by completing an on-line course of study and tests. I’m in the process of completing the on-line course, and just took a break to write this.
Why go to the trouble to renew a certificate I don’t use? The bottom line is that I just worked too hard to get it. Besides the basic CFI, I also added the instrument instructor and multi-engine instructor ratings. In the flying world, you’ll often seen this certificate represented as CFIIME (Certificated Flight Instructor, Instrument, Multi-Engine). Plus, truth be told, it’s really not a bad idea to occasionally review the basic elements of teaching and learning. I’m kind of enjoying it and soon I’ll have a new certificate, with an expiration of 10-31-13.
October 14, 2011
I fly a lot. OK, I know that’s no surprise, but I’m talking about flying as a passenger, sitting in back, getting to and from work. And maybe I’m a curmudgeon, or it’s just familiarity breeding contempt, but I find myself cringing at all the canned phrases and announcements I hear during the process. Phrases I hear from my own co-workers.
One of my favorites is the airport security announcement, repeated several times each hour, which lets us know the current threat level, as determined by the Department of Homeland Security. I love the way it starts: “May I have your attention for an important security announcement.” Look around. Not one person is paying attention. No one stops. No one even hears it any more. It’s like that irritating voice advising you every five seconds: “Caution. The moving walkway is ending.”
But I listen to it, wondering what the threat level is today. Wait for it. Wait for it…. Orange again! Yep, that’s where my money was. Oh, it’s not Red? I didn’t think so. My first clue was the absence of cammy-wearing, M-16-toting soldiers. Not Green? Will we ever see Green again? “That’s right, it’s Green. You are officially encouraged to pay no attention to security and imagine you once again live a world we haven’t seen in over a decade.” Oh Green, how I long for you!
At the gate area (often referred to by gate agents, for some inexplicable reason, as the “gatehouse”), we get a lot of PAs such as “This will serve as a gate change announcement” or “This will serve as a final boarding announcement.” And it serves well, but I’m always left to wonder why they didn’t just trot out the real thing. Be bold! Make a final boarding announcement! And while we’re at it, if it’s really a final boarding announcement, wouldn’t it be made just once? I’ve heard up to half a dozen “final” boarding announcements for the same flight. It’s hard to blame the passenger who waits for the seventh.
Once on the plane, I’m welcomed aboard at every opportunity. Every PA by the crew inevitably starts with “Once again, welcome aboard.” I’ve been welcomed as many as nine times before pushback, and then, for good measure, another time or two shortly after takeoff. C’mon, it’s not the Queen Mary. No one’s placing a lei around my neck or giving me a mai tai, and I’m not going to be sending postcards about this travel experience.
Many flight attendants don’t seem capable of formulating a simple request such as “Please fasten your seatbelt.” Instead, it’s “We do ask that you fasten your seatbelt.” With some, the insertion of “We do” becomes epidemic, infecting almost every simple PA.
One of my favorites is the after-landing PA. Some flight attendants must get a bonus for how quickly they can get on that PA to welcome you to your destination; I’ve often heard it before we exit the runway. It goes something like “Crazy Clown Airlines would like to be the first to welcome you to New York,” like there’s a mob trying to beat them to the punch. I like to get the jump on them when I’m traveling with someone. Right after landing, I’ll turn and say a simple “Welcome to New York.” Life’s little victories.
September 1, 2011
With Hurricane Irene safely behind us, I thought I’d share a story from my pre-airline days, about one of my scariest experiences as a pilot.
From my logbook, here are my entries for a flight in November 1985. There is only a small space for remarks, so they’re not detailed. But they’re enough to remind me vividly of that day. These entries are verbatim and therefore cryptic:
11-2 M20C N78959 W09 – McCollum, Kennesaw GA 3.9 hrs w/Paul, Barb. Visit Shavers. LORAN to NC, then VOR; IFR most of time
11-4 M20C N78959 McCollum – Statesville NC 2.0 hrs
Gloomy forecast. Heaviest rain ever!! Engine out @7000’ over Barrett’s Mt due to showers
11-4 M20C N78959 Statesville – LYH 1.3 hrs
Emergency landing @ Statesville, MVFR (thank God!) Try to push on. More showers; Precautionary landing LYH. Stayed @ Holiday Inn
11-5 M20C N78959 LYH-W09 1.3 hrs
Mostly IFR, little rain. Good to be home!!
Paul is a friend since high school days, and I’m surprised he even went with me on this trip, considering another experience we had flying to the Bahamas several years earlier (a story for another time perhaps). Along with his wife, Barb, we set out to Georgia to visit another high school friend and his wife.
It was a nice visit, and when it came time to return home, I checked the weather. Rain in the forecast, but that’s why the FAA invented the Instrument Rating (which I had). So I felt bullet-proof, and filed for the flight home.
The rain that lay ahead turned out to be some of the heaviest I’ve ever encountered, and it caused flooding that ranks as the second worst in Virginia history. (Go here for a list of the ten worst.)
The airplane we flew was an old 1963 Mooney, which belonged to a student of mine. He let me use it for free whenever I wanted; I just paid for gas. The Mooney is a very nice four-seat plane with little room inside — it’s built for speed.
On the November 4th flight from Georgia, we started encountering rain in North Carolina, which got progressively heavier to the point that the plane actually leaked (rain coming in through seams in the roof and dripping on Barb in the back). It got so loud from the sheer volume of water impacting the plane that it was unlike anything I had experienced in an airplane. I felt more like I was on a submarine, and could barely hear the controller over the headset.
Then the engine just stone cold quit.
The absence of the roar of the engine left us in a small (and oh God, it felt small at that moment), leaky vessel at 7,000 feet, in the heaviest rain I had ever seen. Looking back through the fog of time, it would be silly to think that I could accurately describe all of my emotions and thoughts at that moment, but I distinctly remember a couple of things.
I had two competing thoughts that demanded air time in my brain. One was something along the lines of, “Well, you idiot, this is how you get yourself into Flying magazine, and all the pilots reading your story in the Aftermath section will be tsk, tsking about what a bonehead you were for flying into conditions beyond your capability.” The other thought was a sense of overwhelming guilt at putting my trusting friend and his wife in this situation. I kid you not, the guilt feeling was one of my strongest emotions.
I could feel the effect of adrenaline, and I remember consciously thinking that I had to keep it together for my friends’ sake. I looked at Paul, sitting to the right of me, and he was looking wide-eyed back at me. He knew this was serious, but he was taking his cues from me and I tried hard to give the appearance of calm.
All of the above—the thoughts, the looks—were in the first few seconds after the engine quit. I keyed the mike and told the controller “Washington Center, Mooney 959. We’ve had an engine failure”
I had the radio turned way up so that I could hear the controller, and she responded, “Roger 959, what are your intentions?” This struck me as somewhat humorous at the moment, but I thought it best not to share my amusement with Paul. I simply said, “We need to land.”
Of course, we were going to land, whether we needed to or not. The question was, would we survive the landing?
The controller said, “Roger 959, turn right heading 180 degrees, vectors for Barrett’s Mountain. Current weather at the field: 200 foot overcast, visibility one half mile, heavy thunderstorms. Winds …” I can’t remember the specific winds, but I do remember clearly that it was 200 and a half…classic ILS weather minimums. This was the minimum weather to fly an ILS with an engine running. And I was going to attempt it deadstick!
I should mention that the terrain was mountainous, and the Barrett’s Mountain airport sits at 1,030′ MSL (above sea level). It was not a pretty prospect.
Then, halfway through the turn (because what option did I have but to try?), we popped out of the side of tall cumulus buildups and into clear air. I immediately rolled the wings level and stopped my turn; no way I was going back in the clouds. Ahead were more clouds, but there were gaps and I could see the ground. I would take my chances with an off-airport landing that I could see rather than a deadstick to 200 feet that I couldn’t see. (Note: if we had been another half mile west, we would have completed this turn in the clouds and the outcome of this story would likely have been much different.)
Looking over my left shoulder I looked at the clouds going up to probably over 40,000 feet and extending on a line from the southeast to the northeast as far as I could see. I told Center I was back in VMC (Visual Meteorological Conditions) but I honestly can’t remember anything of what I said. She offered the fact that Statesville, North Carolina was at my 12 o’clock position and 10 miles away.
I’m not sure what my altitude was at this time (although I was still comfortably above the terrain I could see) or if I could have glided all the way to Statesville. I was delighted with the prospect of just picking an open field. Our chances of living had skyrocketed!
Once clear of the rain, the engine began coughing back to life. Throughout this ordeal, the prop had been turning, windmilling in the slipstream (you really have to work at it to get the prop to actually stop without the engine running). Each time the prop turns it causes the magnetos to fire the spark plugs (two sets in each cylinder for redundancy), so the engine is constantly trying to restart in a case like this.
It turns out the reason for the engine failure was the sheer amount of water being ingested. A combustion engine requires intake air to operate, and the heavy rain was displacing the air, so the engine just quit. I might have been able to avoid the failure by selecting “Alternate Air,” which provides a different pathway for air to reach the engine, bypassing the air filter. Alternate Air is usually selected in cases where the air filter ices up, but could well have worked for this case too…I’ll never know.
Anyway, as the water worked its way through the system, the engine was sputtering, and it finally coughed back to life somewhere around 2,000 feet. By the time I was on final approach at Statesville, it was purring as sweet as ever.
Epilog: Somehow I convinced Paul and Barb to get back in the plane and continue home to Leesburg (W09 was the airport identifier for Leesburg then; now it’s JYO). This really is a testament to my persuasive skills, but it still amazes me 26 years later.
I thought we could stay east of the rain, but I was wrong, and once we started encountering rain on the flight out of Statesville, Paul started pointing down, gesturing that he wanted to get on the ground. So I diverted to Lynchburg, Virginia, where we stayed the night. The approach in to Lynchburg was no piece of cake — right down to a 200 foot ceiling and a half mile visibility in rain showers. You can bet I was watching those engine instruments during approach, and I was really glad to be on the ground…again.
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.)
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