Thursday, April 10, 2014

Intimations of Mortality*

We three. We merry three. We three polished and experienced aviators on our way to sunny Sao Paulo, looking so forward to its succulent grills and its cold cerveja, were about to discover that the failure of just a tiny piece of old aviation technology can still make us squirm like nervous Nellies on our dollar ride.

Before the trouble even started we had done a thousand miles of cat-and-mouse battles with those dangerous and deceitful offspring of the inter-tropical convergence zone—the dry cell thunderstorms. The X-band needed a skilled touch to tweak it for dry cell detection, and we three knew how to do that. But we seethed with resentment over the bedamned moon. It was AWOL. It could have helped us see with our Mark-1 eyeballs the frosty white tops of the titans. Our dispatcher had forewarned of the moon’s conspicuous absence in our pre-flight briefing. We would receive no succor from Luna.

Since I had opted for the last break and was yet to take it, my eyelids were growing heavy with the work of straining to watch the dark expanses for tell-tale lightning flashes. The man to my right, Mac, mitigated my sleepiness with constant chatter about his days flying F-16s and other such hair-raising tales as could be trusted to have some measure of truth. I had flown with him before and knew, despite his bluster, he was a solid and trustworthy airman. Suddenly I interrupted him, pointing at the center instrument panel. “Look at that!”

We had been so occupied dividing our attention between the dark unknown out ahead of us and the radar’s ominous sweeping motion on the scope in front of us, that we had not noticed the Standby Attitude Indicator (SAI) had died. In all my years I had never seen one go bad, except once on pre-flight. If you see a bad one before take-off you cannot go until it’s fixed.

The SAI on the 767 is an ancient relic of an instrument—it’s a
Dead SAI in top center. Primary display (blue over brown) at left.
gyro-driven ball sitting in a chamber. A line across the ball represents the horizon. Drop your nose into the black below the line and you’re descending. Raise it into the gray and you’re climbing. It also shows the bank angle of your wings. It runs off of standby power.

The SAI is an important but under-appreciated piece of equipment. It sets there waiting for that one-in-a-thousand chance that you might lose your primary attitude references and need it to keep the blue up and the brown down. Or in our case that night, the black up and the black down.

In your initial training you fly an approach in the simulator using the SAI as sole reference. It’s so hard to do because of the 767’s control sensitivity and the fact that it sits in the center of the panel—not right in front of either pilot—the accepted technique is to split the tasks. The captain manipulates the flight controls and the first officer works the throttles. After that once in the sim, you never do it again. Shame. I was wishing I had demanded to practice with it more often.

Mac uncharacteristically turned sullen. His stare bore into the SAI lying on its side like a beached whale. “Strange,” he said. “No red flags. It didn’t lose power. It just rolled over and died.”

I nodded. “Internal failure.”

I reached over and re-caged it, then let it go. “Let’s see if it will stay erect long enough for us to use it for a while if need be.” Instantly it started to roll over again.

Mac shook his head. “No good!” He gestured out the windows at the blackness. “No moon. No horizon. No lights below us. Just that lightning over there.” He pointed, then swung his forefinger another direction. “And over there. And who knows where else!” He leaned forward to get a better overhead view. “And only a few stars overhead—all dim.” He looked back at me with wide, troubled eyes. He pecked his forefinger at me to emphasize a point that needed no emphasis. But I let him vent. “If we take a lightning strike that knocks out our electrics—” He swung his finger toward the SAI. “—that damned thing is worthless. We’re screwed!”

I nodded. He was right. With not even a turn coordinator that even common light planes have, I doubted our combined skills and experience could keep the touchy 767 rightside-up under these conditions. With a loss of all our electrical power, we might be able to hold her steady for a few minutes using the few visual ques we had—the dim stars and the lightning flashes—but eventually we would have an upset that would beguile our senses into unpardonable control inputs and we would become unrecoverable.

I sank back and looked out front. Doubly alert now for weather demons, I remembered the story about the 767 that lost all its generators on this exact route about five years ago. Fortunately for them their SAI was on duty and the battery lasted long enough for them to thread the gauntlet of the menacing Andes and touch down unmolested at Bogota. That crew deserved medals.

An edgy half hour later Bill came up from his rest period. We showed him the dead SAI. He uttered an imprecation as he settled into the right seat that Mac had vacated for him. “If you feel us get into a graveyard spiral, you’ll know what happened,” Bill called to me, grinning, as I prepared to go back. He had a hundred or so night Hornet traps aboard a boat and seemed a bit less concerned about the dead SAI than us USAF products.

I went back, burrowed into the rest seat and brooded. What would it feel like to lose control of this massive jet and spiral down into the blackness, your mind playing fatal tricks on you all the way to the crater? In spite of such nightmarish ponderings sleep came quickly.

Three hours later they woke me up. I went up to the cockpit to be greeted by a brilliant sun and two cheery jocks, free from the night’s concerns and ready for the approach into Sao Paulo.

That evening, over a savory grilled meat array flanked by an ice bucket stubbed with bottles of Antarctica beer, we talked and laughed about the dead SAI.

As I listened to their banter—the intensity of which became inversely proportional to the decreasing number of bottles of Antarctica in the bucket—I thought about how we always have a back-up plan, or a back-up method. When the primary goes down and we have to revert to the back-up, we think nothing of it; it’s the way things work. All is cool.

But when the back-up suddenly goes down and we’re left with only the main and the familiar, we feel like naked men trying to hide. We become shifty-eyed anticipators of trouble—until the sun comes up, or some other providential deliverance presents itself, and we know our salvation is at hand. And then like pardoned felons thumbing our noses at the gallows we land and drink and commence to brag about our consummate domination over the elements and the technology.

We three. We fortunate three. We gullible trio of lucky sons-of-bitches.

* The title of this post was shamelessly stolen from and slightly modified from Wordsworth.

My buddy Pete "Squatch" VanStaagen took this. Moontown Airfield, Huntsville, Alabama, March 2014.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Reply to Anonymous:

Almost immediately after I wrote Pigs with Four Stripes [click here to read it] I regretted the title I gave it and moreover reckoned I should have added the fact that I have flown with some hefty pilots who were very good at their profession. I also realized that some of my readers may be, in your words, “ individual who weighs more than "normal" (whatever that is)."

Actually, there is a “normal,” and the FAA—as I trust you are well aware—is very concerned about it these days. (Read about it here.) If they get their way many of us who don’t even appear overweight but have BMIs not to the Fed’s liking will be selling insurance, or something, instead of plowing contrails through the heavens. (I expect a  shot will be fired at me for that.)

 But on to your premise:  “Here's the point I want to make... You cannot look at someone and make a judgment about his or her health, personal habits or aeronautical prowess.” I concede I did make a judgment on the first two accounts and I maintain that it was a correct one. Ask a doctor if a simple look at an excessively obese person can fetch a general judgment about that person’s health. Physician I am not, but I do watch “Doc Martin” on PBS. As to “aeronautical prowess,” if you’ll re-read the post you’ll see that I made no comment on that.

You can understand me better—and maybe then cut me some slack—if you know that I have been wearing uniforms since I was nine years old. Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, CAP Cadet, ROTC, USAF, USAFR, and finally the airlines. That's 86% of my life! Seeing somebody bring dishonor to a uniform really annoys me.

Here’s my point: Let’s remember that, like it or not, our profession is a quasi-military one. We wear uniforms; we are compelled to follow strict rules; and the responsibilities we shoulder daily would make most people shudder at the thought. Maybe this is the reason that this statement is embedded in the ALPA Code of Ethics: “He [the airline pilot] will realize that he represents the airline to all who meet him and will at all times keep his personal appearance and conduct above reproach.” Based on my descriptions do you really think the two guys I saw that day in the food court were “beyond reproach” in their appearance and conduct? Or do you believe our Code of Ethics just a passé dogma leftover from yesteryear’s stereotypes?

To be sure, obese pilots are nothing new. I have flown—back when I was a right-seater on the DC-10—with some hefty captains. The ‘10 was their kind of airplane. BIG. I once performed a control column check without checking to see if the captain’s belly was in the way. I hooked his shirt and popped a button off. But you never saw him and most of the others of his size walking around in slouchy uniforms, coatless and hatless, with shirt tails spilling over their belt. They had some pride in their profession and they cared about the image they projected. I think there is a bad trend in our ranks away from pride in our appearance and demeanor. We either forget that the traveling public is watching, or else we don’t care.

As to your statement: “Even if you do know why someone is thin or fat, what business is it of yours? None.”  You’re right. That’s why I didn’t go up to that guy and tell him he ought to lose weight. I kept it to myself. Of course I blogged about it, but I believe that is still a Constitutional right. Anyway the FAA will soon be making it their business.

And lastly, this statement: “What happens when you find out that the fat one is a loving father of three and the thin one was a former Air Force Reserve pilot who is now sitting in prison for collecting and disseminating child pornography?”  I’d say that first guy needs to get his weight under control so those kids will continue to have a father. As to that thin guy who got busted for child porn, I know him. We called him the “Surfer Boy Captain” at ORD because he was always over-tanned and wore his blond hair down to his shoulders. A creepy type—he was—and kept to himself. I don’t know if he was in the USAFR though. Hope not. The Marines would have a field day on that revelation.

So, Anonymous, you may or may not be overweight. But I don’t believe you would have taken the time to post such a thorough and well thought-out comment if you were in the category of the two guys I wrote about. I believe you wear your uniform proudly and fly a good, safe airplane. I would be honored to fly a trip with you, and you would be welcomed to do much more than swing gear. 

You may not know this but I once went through carrier qualifications, USAF style. The "deck" was lubricated with, what else, beer. Unfortunately the wire tenders were not impressed with my first approach and lifted it as I slid by. 

(Not me in the photo.)

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Pigs with Four Stripes

Forgive me if I've taken a cynical turn with this post, but it's my blog and I feel like being cynical today.

It began with my stroll. I often have a lot of time to kill around this gargantuan airport and so I took a long walk down in the old underground train tunnel which spans the length of all the concourses. Silent little trams creep through it with only one or two riders on them. They go at a veritable snail's pace, jerking around the jinks and curves like a carnival ride, all of which has earned them the moniker, “The Disney Train.” When it was built it was the stuff of awe-inspiring state-of-the art airport improvement. But that was back before the TSA and screening, and before everybody got in such a damned hurry. Now a newer, faster, elevated tram serves all the terminals and doesn't require you to leave the “secure” area. But for me the old tram tunnel is a good place to take a stretch in relative solitude.

I like to walk the length of the tunnel and surface in the western-most terminal where a little Tex-Mex lunch counter serves savory burritos. As I waited in line I watched a captain ahead of me talking with the staccato rapidity of a machine gun into a device protruding from his ear, loud enough for me to hear from 20 feet away. Judging from the few words I picked out I was not in the least interested in his business, which was apparently, business. I think the guy had a side enterprise of some sort and was issuing orders to his underlings. He stood in front of the serving line ducking, weaving and gesticulating. I figured he was trying to get better views through a glass shield of the various trays of side dishes from which to choose.

Meanwhile an attractive, stately young woman stood behind him waiting her turn, and the contrast between the two struck me in a sorrowful way. She was a good half-foot taller than the chubby little captain. Not to disparage height-challenged people, it was the way he dressed and conducted himself that irritated me. He was a corpulent humpty dumpty wearing a uniform cut several sizes too large. His hat, far too big, rested on his ears, and he wore it comically tipped back far on his head, like Col. Hogan in Hogan’s Heroes.

In bygone times the young woman might have taken convivial notice of a trim pilot standing near her, clothed not only in a neatly cut uniform but in a quiet, confident demeanor as well. But to her, Captain Humpty was nothing more than an annoying obstacle standing between her and her lunch. He most certainly commanded no sway of esteem with her, yet she may have soon been placing her life in his portly hands. I’m sure if that notion occurred to her she resisted it with a shudder and purged it from her mind.

The server, barely able to understand a few words of English, was as confused as I was. Was Humpty talking to her or the person in his little ear piece? Poor woman. She finally got his plate prepared to his satisfaction and he wobbled away to a table, his lips still clapping like a reed in a clarinet, words jetting that might as well have been gibberish for all I could tell and cared.

I collected my burrito and surveyed the dining area for a table as far away from Captain Humpty as possible, unsuspecting that my disgust with him was about to be trumped by an even more repugnant sight.

Just as I sat down another pilot came into view at the table in front of me. He made Humpty look like fitness trainer. This man, in perhaps his early thirties, weighed at least 325 pounds. He wore neither hat nor coat. His rumpled shirt bore the four stripes of a captain and his wings told me that he flew for the regionals. This man's belly—I'm not exaggerating—spilled out over his belt and clung half way to his crotch, like icing melting off of a tilting wedding cake. The grotesque bulge dangled as if threatening to break off and slam to the floor.
He eagerly tore into his lunch, bantering between gulps with his mostly silent first officer, who had pushed his chair far back from the table in what I figured was symbolic act of distancing himself. This man was bound for the cockpit of a 50 seat regional jet. How he would squeeze into it, I cannot imagine. The nose up trim required of that plane must be near the limit.

I forced down my burrito only by averting my eyes from that ticking myocardial infarction. I didn’t feel as though I belonged here anymore. I belong in the past. I am among the last of the old guard.

 What would these men think of the two imposters I saw?

Captain Hamilton "Ham" Lee
United Airlines

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Best Laid Plans (part 2)

(Continued from last post)

The agent stood behind my seat gleaming. It was her last departure for the day and it had been a very trying day for her and her peers. She had worked several cancellations that day already, dealing with livid holiday travelers. She was ready get us out of here and go home.

But that center tank fuel pump light that kept teasing us wouldn’t get off my mind. The other two pilots seemed lost in their thoughts. Earlier I had asked them for their input on what to do about it. They discussed the light’s ramifications—all of which pointed to a safe flight being the probable result—but made no recommendations.

I wanted to get out and away to Buenos Aires badly. I had plans for Christmas. The trip, even though it was a Reserve pick-up, fit those plans perfectly. The others felt the same. But that damned light wouldn’t quit teasing us with its on-again, off-again game. I took a deep breath and made the decision.

“Gents, I grieve having to say this, but we've got to call that in.” They both sadly nodded. Jim sighed heavily and called maintenance.

The agent’s grin turned dour. “What?” she asked. “Is this serious? Please tell me it’s not. Please! I can’t deal with another cancellation, and besides, there are no hotel rooms left around here. Pleeeeze!” I told her I thought it would be deferred, but I just didn’t know. I was glad when she whirled and stormed out of the cockpit.

A few minutes later two mechs showed up and peered at the EICAS. The light had come on and gone off twice since we called them on the radio. Now it was on. As they stood watching it and discussing options it went off again. Then they headed below to look at wiring in the E&E bay. I switched off the “Fasten Seat belt” sign and told the passengers what was happening.

Then Jim said, “I smell a rat.” I asked how so. He said, “Remember that mechanic that came up right after we got here and asked about the right center pump light?” We nodded. “Well, this plane got towed to this gate from the maintenance hangar. I'm thinking that mechanic was guarding the brakes during that tow and saw that light come on and go off.” He pointed at the EICAS panel. “And he decided not to report it, wishfully hoping it would not appear again.”

“So that he wouldn't have to fix it, “Rich added.


And so we realized that one man—that mechanic—could have headed this off. He could have given the maintenance team several hours’ notice ahead of departure time to get this fixed.

When the maintenance chief came up I told him about the previous mechanic's remarks. He looked at me with wide, unbelieving eyes. “Okay,” he said. “I'll deal with that later. Right now we've got to get this fixed.” He left to join his team working below. The gate agent re-appeared.

“What's happening?” she asked. I told her we now had only an hour left before we “burned out.” She cringed. She knew what that meant. With the wasted hours already behind us and the long flight ahead, we would exceed our 14 hour duty day if we waited past midnight to go. She put her hands to her face. “Oh, no, no, no.”

The maintenance team also was well aware of our burn-out time. They worked fast and hard, running test after test to try and get the light to work correctly. When 11:30 rolled around my eyelids were sagging, knowing that nearly 11 hours of flying was ahead, even if they fixed the problem right now.

The mechanics came back to the cockpit. “Five minutes,” the chief mechanic said. He held up his hand, fingers spread wide. “Give us five minutes, and I think we'll have it fixed.”

“Too late,” the gate agent said, standing behind him. He turned. “Headquarters has rescheduled the departure to 0800 tomorrow morning.” The mechanic sighed. He left. She went to the PA to tell the restless passengers they would not be going until tomorrow. As the passengers filed off, grumbling, I quickly called the crew scheduler. He released us with two hours “call-out” pay. He had already alerted a standby crew to pick up tomorrow morning's flight.

I found out later that that the crew who got that 0800 departure with the same plane (now with the pump light fixed) had discovered a bad nosewheel strut, which delayed them two hours, after which they were assigned a different plane. On that plane they discovered a deep gash in a tire which delayed them another hour. (This is an example of why pilots are required to make a final “walk-around” inspection, even when the mechanics have already done so.) They finally launched for BA at noon. While in BA their return flight got cancelled and they spent Christmas there.

As the passengers filed off I thought about the remark I heard from the distraught gate agent—that there were no hotel rooms left in the area. I tore into my phone, knowing all those passengers would be doing the same. My usual haunt, the Comfort Suites, said they had a room. I booked it. But their airport shuttle was done for the night. I would have to find a different way to get there—a $20 cab ride for the five minute ride. I went down to the pickup point. The Quality Inn van stopped to pick up its passengers. I asked the driver if she would drop me off at the Comfort, holding a five dollar bill in my hand. “Sure, I can do that!” she said.

And so ended another thrilling day in the life of an airline pilot. After boarding the van I looked at the nifty app I had recently installed on my phone. It read: 209 days, 2 hours, 17 minutes, and 58 seconds—to go until retirement.

I was right about the cancellation spoiling Christmas plans. Next morning I got assigned a domestic trip that left Christmas Eve morning and returned late on the 25th.

A closing note: I would like to tell you more about the “perfect storm” that hit my company, most of it self inflicted, but I would like to keep my job for (as of this writing) another 193 days, 11 hours, 26 minutes and 5 seconds.
You think we're in a cold spell, eh? Check these shots I took over Greenland yesterday coming home from London:

And finally, am I crazy to suggest this, or the first to think of it?

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Best Laid Plans

The holiday season is always tense for airline pilots. Even the super-senior ones can’t get it all. You want Christmas Eve off, and the big day, too. And you want the day after off so you won’t have to commute in that night. Ditto for New Year’s Eve, Day and after. In my case I’ve got my wife’s birthday to on New Year’s Day to consider, and every other year the Christmas reunion her family holds. Then there are the parties, plays, concerts and services that come with the season. No way you can’t work them all in. You’ve got to prioritize. You’re bidding power only goes so far. I’m tired of it and can’t wait till next year when I’m finally a normal person and can do it all. This final year on the line was no different. I schemed as usual to try and salvage a day, morning or afternoon at home sometime near Christmas. And I thought I had done it.

What a perfect plan I had. My plotting to get Christmas day off went off without a hitch, or at least that’s what I was thinking. I was supposed to be on reserve (of course) but I got to studying the open flying coming up and looked at the reserve availability. Someone had just called in sick for Buenos Aires. The trip technically worked on Christmas day, but it got back into base at 0600 Christmas day. I was not eligible for it because I was coming up on two days off. But then, no one on the list was eligible either. Hmmm. Could there be opportunity here?

I devised my scheme and called the scheduler, telling him, “I see you’re in a pickle about Buenos Aires tomorrow night.” He confirmed it, saying he was going to have to draft someone and move their days off. I told him, “Look no farther.” He moved my Monday day-off to Thursday and put me on the trip.

Good work. My family and some extended family were planning on Christmas dinner. I’d be home by 10am. An extra perk with the deal was the opportunity to do some Christmas shopping in BA. I hung up the call to the scheduler smirking like schoolboy who had just put a frog in the teacher’s purse. I told my wife I’d be joining them, with the usual caveat an airline pilot’s wife is so painfully accustomed to: assuming all goes well.

Next evening when I met my crew, Rich, the relief pilot told me he had worked out the exact same deal with the crew desk. We high-fived it and pored over the paperwork. Good weather. Clean airplane. No delays expected. If a song bird had flew in and lit on my shoulder I wouldn’t have been surprised.

While we were settling in on the flight deck something subtly ominous happened. A mechanic poked his head in and asked, “Is that right fuel pump low pressure light on?”

We instantly looked at the EICAS message list. The usual lights were on at this stage of the game but not the one he asked about, nor was it supposed to be on. Before we could ask him why he was asking, he said, “Good flight” and disappeared. Poof! Gone.

We looked at each other, eyebrows wrinkled. "That's strange," I said, “I don't remember seeing a write-up about that when we went over the paper work back in ops. Did you?” They both shook their heads. Rich grabbed the flight paperwork and reviewed the last two weeks of maintenance work. There was no record of it. Why then, did the mechanic come up and ask such a question? We shrugged it off and went about our business of prepping the cockpit for the long, dark trek south.

At 2050 hours I pushed the “READY” button on the ACARS panel, 10 minutes before scheduled push time. This told station operations center that we had completed our pre-start checklists, had our fuel sheet and maintenance release, and were ready to go. We got the plane ready early and I visited with some of the passengers. They were upbeat and happy—headed home for Christmas, or to visit. I went back to the flight deck to start the checklists. 

When push time came and went and the cargo doors were showing open, we figured they were just late as usual, loading bags. No big deal. But then, why was the entrance door still open? That answer literally walked in the door as I was about to call station ops to ask it. The agent said three people were denied boarding because they didn’t pay their “reciprocity fees.” The fee is $160. You pay on-line before you go and you must show the receipt at the boarding gate. It’s called reciprocity because it is a tax war between the two countries. I don’t know who started it.

The problem was these three folks’ checked bags had been loaded with the other hundreds. Now we were in for at least an hour’s delay while the bag crews unloaded, sorted and re-loaded. We sipped coffee and sank back into our seats. An hour didn’t threaten out crew duty day much, and an hour robbed from a 36 hour layover was no big deal.

After about 45 minutes, Rich, sitting on his jumpseat said, pointing at the EICAS, “Look! That light is on!” As quickly as my eyes found it, the RT CTR FUEL LOW light went off. We looked at each other. Jeff, the first officer said, “I think that’s why that mechanic came up earlier. He might have seen that light come on when he was riding safety brakeman. They towed it from the hangar, didn’t they?”

I shrugged. I didn’t know whether they towed it over or not. If we didn’t see it come in under tow, we usually don’t know. About then the agent came back up and said they had found the bags to be off-loaded and were re-stowing the rest. It wouldn’t be long now.

Nobody said much for a few minutes, but I knew we were all searching our thoughts about that peek-a-boo light. We had our carefully laid plans. The passengers were eager. We wanted to go. It was easy to ignore a light that appeared a few seconds every now and then, especially when you know that even if you have a defective center tank pump, you still have a second one that can do the job of both. 

We heard a thump, and knew it was the forward cargo door sealing itself closed. The cargo door light went out. The agent appeared with a big smile. “They’re finished down below. Can we pull the bridge and get you out of here?”

“Wait,” I said. I looked at the other two guys. I saw trouble in their faces. I wasn’t feeling too gung ho myself. I had no doubt we could safely make that flight with the redundancy we had. If that light came on after 100 knots on the take-off roll we would not stop. On to BA. If the second center pump failed enroute (what are the chances of that?) trapping fuel in the belly tank, then we would have to make a refueling stop somewhere. Not good. We would likely go illegal on crew duty day and would dump about 200 people on some sleepy Caribbean town. BTW, at out stations guess who is responsible taking care of stranded passengers?

Another scenario: If the light came on prior to 100 knots on the takeoff roll we would have to abort. There would be a long trouble-shooting process. With an 11 hour flight ahead, we would certainly run afoul of the duty rules and go illegal.

With the agent waiting, the passengers settled, the push tug connected and the ground crew giving me the all clear below to push, I had a decision to make and the ramifications could shatter a lot of Christmas plans, not just mine. 
High pressure core?

“As the hours pass … ties are pulled down and collars loosened; there is a much stretching of limbs. It is at this point that some airmen become preoccupied with personal thoughts, their dreams transporting them over the horizon to more prosaic scenery. They create romantic visions of their homes in which their wives are continuously delightful, their children never cry, and all the bills are paid. Sometimes they become so sentimental they even trifle with thoughts of remaining permanently earth-bound. Only the cynics know this is next to impossible.”
                       Ernest Gann
                       Fate is the Hunter