Saturday, October 24, 2009

Throwing Darts in the Cockpit

Unless you're living in a snow cave in Antarctica you know about the incident last week in which pilots at another airline didn't respond to radio transmissions and overflew their destination by 168 miles. Now I can hardly pass by a group of passengers without someone asking, “What is it you guys do while the plane is cruising?”

This is not surprising because the "passengers" in the cockpit on the errant flight admitted to being in a heated conversation about company matters for over an hour and completely forgot to do their job. Air Traffic Control finally got their attention just as a flight of F-16s was taxing out to go after them—with live missiles, I suspect.

Autopilots are wonderful inventions that save lives by allowing pilots to multi-task during high workload situations and to relax during long high cruise segments. Programmed correctly, the autopilot and its associated computers (most large jets have three such units) knows when it's time to reduce power and descend. But it won't do that unless a pilot pushes a button to permit it to do so. On the 757/767s I fly, all it will do is put up a tiny message that says, RESET MCP ALTITUDE. That, by far, is not the only way you know it's time to descend, but it's the only cue you get from George (that's what the old timers called the autopilot). Those bums who FUBARed missed all the cues.

So, back to the question. My son Brad, asked a good one, 

“Do you read books, throw darts...what?” Here's the official answer: We mind the store.

Every five minutes or so, the radio barks orders at us to change frequencies and occasionally altitude, course and airspeed. We monitor the fuel burn and keep a log to make sure we don't have excessive consumption that might indicate a leak or other trouble. We monitor the navigation systems to make sure we stay on course. We constantly study the weather along the route and at the destination. If we observe conditions not forecast—a “wind bust” for example—we send in a report. We send maintenance reports on breakages and malfunctions. We download paperwork for the next flight, study it, make amendments if necessary, and send back an acceptance, or (on rare occasions) a refusal.

What else? Crew meals take some time—I'm a slow eater. 

And, sometimes we open a manual and review stuff about the plane or the operation that's gotten fuzzy.

My company regards the airspace below 18,000 feet to be “sterile cockpit” country. Since my company has placed that rule in our operations manual, the FAA considers it theirs also. During sterile cockpit we can only discuss matters relating to the task at hand and perform only actions related to flight. That's why I don't take photos of landings. (One of our pilots did that two years ago and posted it to her website, and was summarily fired.) And, the flight attendants are forbidden to call us below 18,000 unless they have an emergency.

Above 18,000 feet there is no prohibition on conversational topics. The captain usually sets the tone. I allow my first officers to vent, but I discourage lengthy, unending tirades.
They are usually quick to see that I like to talk about airplanes, boats, dogs and certain sports. It would be highly unusual to fly with someone who didn't want to discuss in depth one of those compelling subjects.

So, there you have it. That's what we do. Understand that the newspaper you see tucked in my bag's outer pocket is for the layover. And don't assume the round disc-like bulge in my travel bag is a dart board.

I was going to tell you about the message I sent to another planet, but that'll have to wait. Oh, yeah, I forgot. We send messages to other planets too.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Carl was flying the other night on the DEN-LAX leg. He's an ex-naval “aviator.” Never could understand why they don't call them pilots. Carl and I have some things in common; we're about the same age, we both love dogs and we and both flew A-7s. But he had better A-7 stories than I did. He kept my sides hurting from laughing so hard. 

I had given the passengers my standard pre-departure speech when I have navy first officers: “Ladies and gentlemen, your First Officer, Carl _____ will be at the controls tonight. Carl is an ex-Navy pilot. But don't let that concern you. I'm an ex-Air Force pilot and I'll be watching everything he does.” Another pilot came into the cockpit to ask for the jumpseat just as I finished the announcement, saying, “Well skipper, now you've got two squids to watch after."

Carl immediately began extolling his vast powers of Naval airmanship as he climbed us out over the Front Range and made the sun rise again. It was a stunning sight. The evening was clear and peaceful, and the sky colors were so vivid and sweeping that we sat awed for a few minutes―the stories and jokes suspended while the three of us drank in sunset. We were peeking into the studio of the Artist of the Universe. He may have looked over his shoulder at us and winked before turning back to His work.

The western horizon was still crimson aglow when we started down the long straight-in arrival procedure at LAX, well known to airline pilots as the RIVER ONE ARRIVAL. I sat there wondering what river could possibly be below us in that parched basin that would have beckoned the FAA to come up with such a name. The RIVER ONE is usually a benign procedure, albeit a fairly busy one. But that night it turned into a monster when SOCAL Approach pulled the dreaded runway switch on us. They switched us to runway 24R, from the usual 25L.

Our navigation computer, called the FMC, doesn't like it when we put a new runway in it in the final minutes. It punishes us by erasing the current routing. Suddenly you find yourself flying with the autopilot in Heading Select not tracking any course, just descending straight into the beehive of air and radio activity that the LA Basin is. Scary.

The change threw us into a frenzy trying to re-establish the proper route transition into the FMC. Of course at such times nothing happens in series, only in parallel. As Carl started to brief the new runway procedures, as he was required to do, voices on the radio began to demand my attention. “Cleared ILS 24 Right, River One arrival, maintain 250 knots until further assigned.” I read back the clearance and consulted the chart for the next altitude crossing. Carl found it before I did. “Set 14,000,” he said, pointing his finger at the Altitude Set window. I put it in as the voice on the radio demanded my attention again. “There is a heavy Boeing 777 your eleven o'clock descending for runway 24 Left, report that traffic in sight.”

As Carl finished his briefing, I looked ahead and slightly left but there was a layer of scud there. I didn't see the Triple. The voice paused for a second after barking instructions to other aircraft and I told him “No joy on the Triple.”

I reached into the chart bag, pulled out an enormous binder and rifled through it trying to find the Runway 24R approach, as Carl commanded, “Set 12,000 feet.” I set the new altitude, then remembered we had not yet accomplished the Approach Descent Checklist. I quickly double checked to make sure Carl had set the correct ILS frequency and course into the receiver, and heard the voice command me to slow to 210 knots. Carl deployed the speed brakes and we heard the roar of wind over the raised panels far behind us.

I reached for the checklist card and started reading the items on the descent checklist, but the voice interrupted again and told me to slow to 180 knots. Carl slammed the speed brake lever back forward and said, “Flaps 1.” I moved the handle to the “1” position. Now we heard a different wind noise and felt the nose adjust downward. I went back to the checklist and resumed accomplishing the items when the voice asked me again if had the Triple in sight. I looked out ahead and low and saw nothing but the lights of the Los Angles basin, zillions of them. How was I supposed to pick out the lights of an aircraft against the backdrop of that cluster of lights?

Then I remembered the cabin warning. I had not done it yet. I pushed my PA button, “Flight Attendants, prepare for landing.” When I looked back up the runway was straight ahead and getting bigger, fast. I thought, I'm about saturated with all this stuff. Too much to do.

Carl said, “Gear Down!” I reached over and slammed the handle down, then looked back toward the Triple. I saw lights on the ground going out momentarily and coming back on. That was the big jet passing over them. Then I saw his flashing strobes. I punched the mic button and said I had the Triple in sight. “Roger, caution, wake turbulence, maintain visual separation with that traffic.”

I looked at the wind display on my EHSI and saw it was a right quartering crosswind. Good. That would blow the Triple's wake away from our course. Then Carl demanded more flaps. I moved the lever and watched the flap indicator travel to the new position. I looked back at the gear indicators and saw three green lights. I read the Final Descent Checklist just as the voice demanded I switch to the tower frequency. I did that, while wondering what I had forgotten, and as soon as I got a sufficient gap in the constant radio traffic I announced to the tower that were on the ILS 24R.

Carl demanded more flaps. They cleared us to land. I saw 1000 feet on the radio altimeter and announced it. Carl said, “Runway 24 Right in sight, cleared to land.” In a few seconds the radio altimeter read 500 feet. I announced it. 

Carl said, “Final flaps 30.” I checked that they were at 30, the gear was down, and the brake pressure was normal.
Carl set the 757 down expertly and smoothly, despite being a carrier pilot, and I took over for the taxi when he slowed. I slumped and took a deep breath. Carl looked at me, wiping sweat from his brow. “Damn!” he said. “We're getting too old for this!”

“What are you talking about?” I said. “I did all the work. You just flew.”

We got to the hotel and ordered cold beers and some cheesy nachos and swapped some more A-7 tales. We both agreed that those were the days when we really had to work. But those were also the days when we were fearless “bullet proof” young turks. (Truth be known I did get scared a time or two.)

We also agreed we were lucky to survive those fighter driver years so that we could come to this slow, boring, challengeless airline job.

Now check this out. A couple of nights earlier, St. Elmo's fire clawing at our windscreens:

Think that's cool? Read what Dr. Edward Wilson wrote about this phenomenon while on an Antarctic voyage of discovery in 1904:

Sat 12 March: This was the most weird and brilliant night I have ever seen at sea. The water was ablaze with phosphorescence. Acres of brilliant light flashed by and the seas that broke over our decks were all ablaze. Ahead and astern were large luminous balls in the water, like gas lamps as far as one could see in every direction. Overhead was pitchy black, with aurora towards the horizon and occasional flashes of sheet lightning. And, to crown it all, St. Elmo's fire settled...on every masthead and on the two ends of all the upper yard arms, just one bright clear star at every point. It was a beautiful sight in the pitchy blackness above, to see these crosses sweeping backwards and forwards as the ship rolled to and fro. The lights were as big and as bright as the Gemini. One is lucky to see this electric phenomenon, for many have spent their lives on the sea without ever coming across it.

Lucky, indeed.

In the next post: The message I sent to another planet.