Wednesday, December 28, 2011

No Rest for the Weary

As usual, when the government says I'm here to help you, check your six, check your wallet and look around for an open window. Their intentions may be good, but in my opinion, more often than not they make your life more complicated than if they had left you alone. Such may be the case with the new fatigue rules. And as usual you need to hire an attorney to interpret them.

The big change is pilots will now have 10 hours minimum rest. That's up from nine. Click here for details. That’s better than nothing I suppose, but then there's this: if you report for duty between 0500 and 1959, (that's “Way-too-Early” and “End of Happy Hour” for us Air Force types) you can fly nine (9) hours un-augmented (basic 2 person crew). That's down from the previous rule, which was eight (8). So, you see there's good news and bad news. And it's worse than you think. Here's why.

An east-bound Atlantic crossing from the upper East Coast to Western Europe typically takes less than 8 hours, but the return, which is against the winds, takes more than eight. Therefore airlines use a relief pilot, which allows them to fly longer, even though they don't need the relief pilot for the goin' over leg. Now they may not need one for the coming home leg either. 

See what's coming? Or rather, what's going? Going out, that is—relief pilot. Yes, soon when you go to western Europe you may have only two pilots up front the whole way. This is the manna from heaven airline companies have waited for. Now, not only can they shed themselves of some of those pesky pilots, they can sell an extra seat, because a rest seat for pilots won't be needed.

But, you say, so what? I work 8-9 hours about every day. Yep, going to London with two pilots is pretty easy; further east destinations are a little harder but doable. Here's the rub: those trips typically don't start until late afternoon or evening. So, 8-10 hours after being up since your normal get-up time you start work. The most demanding part of your flight, the approach, occurs at about 0200 on your body clock, and you have not had a rest break. 

And coming back from Europe we usually start out at about 0100 on our body lock. How about pulling a nine hour shift with no rest and no break after getting up an hour after mid-night?

Incidents of pilot deviations will go up. Somebody will pay for this change, and the price might be enormous.

If any of you Mach-Rangers think I've mis-interpreted this or gotten my facts wrong, sound off.

"A-RAAAH, A-RAAAH, A-RAAAH! A stinking beeper, the loneliest and most pitiful cry in the world."
--Jack Broughton, Thud Ridge

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Nothing Else Compares

I look over at Dave. He's nodding off. His head bobbles, sways. The chin drops, snaps back up, then drops again. This routine goes on for several minutes before the chin becomes pinned, permanently it seems, against his slowly heaving chest. He's not supposed to be doing that. Perhaps he's praying. That's not prohibited, so I'll give Dave the benefit of the doubt. He brought his girlfriend with him for our long Roman layover, which we just concluded, so I presume he has much to be prayerful for. Me? I'm just gazing out over the wonderfully blue North Atlantic―a prayerful sight itself.

Now that we've left radar contact and entered oceanic airspace, we no longer have to monitor the radio. If they want to call us a chime will ring. Then we'll turn up our HF volume and answer them. If you ever crossed the ocean constantly listening to the hissing, squealing cacophany of raw HF radios, you know what a magnificent invention SELCAL is. Much better than sliced bread.

When your co-pilot is indisposed, prayerfully or otherwise, things get really quiet in the cockpit. The gently hissing slipstream tries to lure me into nodsville. Can't let that happen. Listening to music is verboten, but at times like this it keeps me alert. It raises my awareness.

The sky and water are beautiful. The ride is glassy smooth. In moments like this I'm given over to idyllic ponderings. The 767 slips along like a galactic cruiser. Destination: somewhere way out yonder. I put on my headset and look for a selection from my Android's music library. Too many to choose from. I flick the slider with my finger and let it glide. What ever it stops on, I'll hear.

It stops on Cold Play's Clocks.” My eyes water up when I see it. I start it and resume my gaze across the horizon.

I always will remember Clocks as “Keavy's song.” It was playing on the speakers on my porch one evening when she was hanging out logging some porch time with us. She stopped talking in mid-sentence and cocked an ear toward the speakers. “What's that song?” she asked. “Wow, I love that song!” Little did I know Keavy's days among us were short. (Read “Ode to Keavy” if you haven't.)

...a tiger's waiting to be tamed.

No wonder she liked that song. Taming a tiger was on her agenda.

And I sit, in the nose of this big flying tiger watching a blue world go by, listening to Keavy's song, remembering her, thinking of her mom.

...gonna come back and take you home.

Some die young at the hands of this compelling passion we call flying. Others are left to grow old and reflect on why they lasted so long. Here I am really living out a dream―the sarcastic jokes about that phrase aside. Masses of people by the billions would want to do this, and yet here I am. The significance of that is not lost on me. And it never will be. 

Nothing else compares. No, nothing else compares.
―Cold Play, “Clocks”

Friday, November 25, 2011

Loggin' Light Years (Last Part)

Bob was happy to have survived the deep downturn in the mid-forties when high-speed intercontinental seafloor rail service took a heavy toll on the airline business. The recovery from that bust began when the combined rocket-hybrid synergistic particle-impulse engines were developed in the fifties, becoming the revolutionary breakthrough the aerospace industry had long awaited. Finally, fuel was no longer a major problem. Aircraft designers’ new challenge was to make the ships as big and heavy as possible. With the new engines, more weight meant more efficiency. Ground facilities seemed to be the only limiting factor. Bob pondered it with fascination. What a radical turnaround!      

So much had changed it boggled his mind. Suddenly he wondered how long it had been since he had actually spoken on the radio to a controller. How many years?

As he shook off his musings and began his re-entry
preparations, a bright object caught his eye. It was the comforting sight of the glistening emergency docking station 50 miles overhead. He had been there only once when an electrical fire had broken out on his 937 a few years ago. All 700 passengers had evacuated safely into the station and stayed for several orbits until another plane picked them up. But that was a costly flight for his company. Haliburton didn’t operate those stations out of kindness.

Just as he was becoming agitated that he might not get his meal before re-entry he heard the chime. The serving door opened behind them and out rolled the trays. He gave one to Jennifer and placed his tray on his velcro-lined retractable table.   

Then the chime rang again. A flight attendant in the left upper aft sub-cabin said it was too hot. He made an adjustment and mumbled that the automatic temperature controller must have been designed by the Seattle town drunk. Jennifer giggled while tearing off a printed message. She frowned and handed it to him: drug test at McMurdo. He let out a heavy sigh and wished he had lived in the old days when pilots could just fly and not have to put up with pointless annoyances.  

He munched on his chicken flavored alpha-keratin soy sticks while watching Antarctica, brilliant and magnificent, rolling out of the south toward him.  It was hard to believe so many people lived in South Victoria. Too cold for him, though.

He noticed Jennifer eyeing his tray. “Are you going to eat that?” she asked, gesturing toward his untouched tube of broccoli paste. He shook his head and gave it to her. He hated his company might lose Jennifer, but he knew she was logging time for a big airline job.

He realized it was time to get to work.  He had two more legs to fly today, up to Mumbai and on over the top, back to Chicagoland. Already he felt tired. He hated these one-day trips.  It was too bad he would never have the seniority to fly the big new long-haul birds with all the latest bells and whistles. Thinking about it, he slowly shook his head. Yeah, those guys really had it made. 

When Jennifer finished her meal Bob said, “Okay, time to take her on in and land her.  Make it so, Number One.” 

“As you wish, Captain.”

He smiled thoughtfully and took in all the sights and sounds he could pack for future memories. Yeah, was going to miss this job. Most of it. 

Never make predictions, especially about the future.
--Casey Stengal

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Loggin' Light Years (Part II)

The two pilots complied with the checklist as the aircraft read it to them, while Bob continued to visually monitor the taxi progress. He saw multiple launches taking place on the runway 18L complex far to his left on the southern horizon and recoveries flowing in from his right into the 18R tiers.  Approaching the entry point he could see the broad downward sloping ramp to the 27LL tunnel. A sub-orbital narrow body was powering up for its break release on the middle tier. On the top runway Bob could barely see the fins of two regional jets accelerating away in formation. 

Almost imperceptibly, he shook his head at the thought.
Innovative ideas had been put into practice to deal with airspace separation limitations, some not so rational, he mused.  Ironically, one solution was to put planes closer together so that in effect they occupied the same piece of airspace for takeoff, breaking away later to their respective destinations. Remarkably there had not been a single formation related accident in the years they had been doing that but the training costs were enormous. He knew that old procedure was finally coming to an end, and just ahead of him was one reason why.

The two pilots carefully checked for obstacles as the 957’s
nose swung onto a yellow line turning off of the main route, much as a railroad engineer didn’t steer but monitored the progress of his locomotive entering a side rail. The upload pad lie ahead where two regional jets waited on each side of the 957’s path. In a few minutes both smaller jets were lifted and securely attached to the wings of Bob’s mothership. Bob and Jennifer complied with all the aircraft’s instructions and confirmed that the parasite crews were ready. Jennifer pushed the ready icon. A clearance flashed on their CRTs from the O’Hare tower. Bob initiated engine start.

He taxied the big ship into the tunnel just as a supersonic transcon flight rolled in the runway above their heads. When the takeoff clearance flashed in their HUD-shields Bob initiated takeoff sequence and Jennifer confirmed.  The ship heaved ahead.

Lights in the runway 60 feet below began to scroll underneath them and soon the lighting in the overhead structure started to race by. Suddenly the cockpit windows changed from clear to tinted as the laser brilliance of daylight burst on them. With his hand hovering near the sidestick controller Bob monitored the rotation and liftoff. The Air-Boeing’s voice recommended gear up. Bob initiated and Jennifer confirmed.

After an intermediate level-off at flight level 180 they released their RJs in sequence, watching them fall slowly away and bank toward their destinations. Then they received clearance for sub-orbital acquisition. 

Bob double-checked that the fasten seat belt sign was on and locked. He remembered the captain who forgot about it ’53 and got a frantic call from his purser that a thousand or so passengers were floating.  Some giggled and glided like Superman through the cabin while others fretted and groped for some solid object to stop the tumbling. After that incident all seatbelts were modified so that they could not be released unless the captain’s switch was out of the locked position.

The nose rotated and the big ship comfortably accelerated. Bob and Jennifer looked through their HUD-shields as blue changed to black and stars appeared by the zillions. They watched as the ship rolled 180 degrees to wings level inverted and saw the green and ochre Yucatan Peninsula drift overhead. Far above their heads, silhouetted against the sapphire Caribbean, they saw the multiple thick contrails of the Trans-American tracks connecting North America with the thriving economies in the South. He remembered flying those routes earlier in his career when he rendezvoused with company tankers to take on a precisely measured amount of fuel to optimize his burn. That was another of the desperate measures airlines contrived to conserve every ounce of fuel. But its efficiency never proved out, and air refueling―long a staple of the military―was short-lived in commercial operations.    

To the south and far below he saw the sun glinting off the
wings of a cargo train inching its way across the stratosphere. The air freight companies had resurrected an old concept, towing. Their widebody freighters towed two and sometimes three pilotless glider-freighters behind them. Pilotless aircraft were not new. The last manned military aircraft had been retired almost a generation ago, and some overwater cargo operations were remotely controlled. Passengers, however, still demanded humans in their cockpits, and a few automation failures over the years had proved that to be wise. 

Now that 20 minutes and half the 10,500 mile trip was behind him, Bob felt the call of mother tummy. He dinged his purser, asked about the crew meals, and was promised receipt of same, soon.  

The few minutes he had now before descent was his only chance to relax and reflect on the waning days of his career. While Jennifer busied herself with re-entry preparations he thought about seeing what he was seeing for the last time. Sure, he would see the curving arc of the Earth’s circumference again―from a passenger window when he and his wife took their trips in retirement. But it would never be the same. 

Already he had reservations for a lunar vacation in two years―the soonest he could get them. But when he heard about the first Wal-Mart store going up in Tycho Crater City, he thought he just might cancel and wait on the Marriot Grand Martian to open. Even if he could somehow afford that trip, it wouldn’t excite him like flying this great sub-orbital cruiser did. 

He had seen much happen in his time. He had watched aircraft engine technology go from the ill-fated experiments with nuclear steam powerplants back in the twenties to the highly successful solid fuel jet engines developed in the forties. 

He remembered scoffing when ESOPS was approved in 2042. He had vowed never to fly a single engine airliner across the ocean, but eventually he logged hundreds of blue water crossings in them. (continued next post)

We drive into the future using only our rear view mirror.  
--Marshal McLuhan

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Loggin' Light Years (Part I)

The long dry spell continues. I have logged only about 50 hours in the last eight weeks. This makes for poor pickings for blog topics. But it generates a lot of time to muse up crazy stories. Loggin' Light Years is a story of a day in the life of an airline pilot who lives far in the future. I asked some of my first officers to come up with ideas about what the future of the airline profession might look like. Some of those ideas went into this story.

Part I
Captain Bob Stickman flashed his taxi light, noting with satisfaction how all 18 of the launch crew quickly formed a neat line in front of the aircraft. Some held hydraulic arming pins high for him to see. Others put their thumbs up. The launch captain stood in front and rendered a sharp salute. Bob returned it and instructed First Officer Jennifer Winger to request taxi clearance. She pushed a button on her work station console and a minute later a message flashed clearing them to taxi to runway 27 Left-Lower.

This was Bob’s first trip with Jennifer in several years, but he had flown with her on the atmospheric fleets and remembered she was a good first officer.  He looked forward to flying with her again.   

The eight mile long taxi route immediately appeared on Bob’s EHSI. He touched the Arm HMP icon and saw that it began flashing on both his and Jennifer’s console. “Engage HMP,” Bob uttered. They both touched the icon and noted that it switched from red to green. He felt a barely noticeable lurch as the hydraulic motive power engaged the wheels. Bob watched for obstacles as his behemoth moved forward and the nose swung around toward the taxi route.

Certain critical functions in the 957’s cockpit required both pilots’ agreement to initiate. If the consenting pilot did not confirm the action within ten seconds, initiation would be automatically canceled. There was also a minimum reaction interval, three seconds. The aircraft’s designers didn’t want pilots to respond too fast. The extra time forced them to think about what they were about to do.  

The aircraft itself also had a say-so. Bob marveled at the safety redundancy built into the plane, remembering how the aircraft might challenge an action initiated by one pilot and confirmed by the other. A big yellow Air-Boeing logo would begin to flash at them. The unwritten message was, Do you really want to do that? The engineers wanted, no doubt, to put those exact words on the CRT but they didn’t. Instead a brief explanation would appear advising the pilots why they might want to reconsider.

Engaging the HMP was one of those critical functions. Hydraulic motive power was old technology, developed many years ago during the fuel crisis. The two pilots were well aware of the early problems that abounded when aircraft electric hydraulic pumps were modified to power hydraulic motors installed on the planes’ wheel trucks. The idea was to save fuel by taxiing without running the engines. The modification took many years to perfect, but the fuel it saved helped the industry survive the great fuel crises between 2015 and 2025. Bob was in high school then and Jennifer wasn’t even born, but they both had heard the stories and read the histories.

 As the 957 crawled toward the expansive vertically tiered runway complex, Bob, nearing the end of his nearly 50 year career, found himself more often reflecting on the changes he had seen and the profound things that had happened before his time.

His dad had told him the stories about the troubled times in ’15 when the fuel started to get scarce―not that it ran out. Oil supply was already in a slow steady decline by then, and there wasn’t enough to satisfy the world’s growing thirst for it. Finally the government decided to act decisively and began earmarking fossil fuels for critical uses only. Surface transportation was forced to find other fuels and technologies while military air power and commercial air transportation were given a reprieve and allowed to use what oil was available for refining. 

Bob was aware that it took many years to bridge the gap between the end of the petroleum era and the beginning of the new synthetic fuels and their engines, hard times for many people. And the wars that resulted had cost millions of lives. Hard to believe, Bob thought, that people would try to exterminate each other for a bunch of black goo. He shook his head. How did his parents ever live through those years?
(to be continued)
The future ain't what it used to be.
 --Yogi Berra

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Skies of Wrath

In the last 64 days I have flown seven times. Seven days, one leg each of those seven days. The longest was Zurich to Washington. The shortest Chicago to Washington. There was also a 3-day simulator proficiency check somewhere in there.

This idleness is ostensibly because the company announced it would decrease flying in our fleet beginning September. Boy, did they ever. The line-holders have been cut back to 70 hour lines. They have been used to 85 or so. Now they pick up all the open flying they can get to make up for lost pay. This leaves little flying for reserve pilots like yours truly, but we are accustomed to 70 hours (minimum pay), so we are kicking back and enjoying the time off.

Why so few flights? Here's the strategy: You cut back on service. That's less fuel you pay for, less maintenance you must perform, and lower payroll costs. But, you say, that's also less product to sell. (Product being a seat available to put a paying butt in.) Think.

Ah, but now you see the light. Reduce service and raise the prices. As long as demand does not diminish, you get more bucks for the butts. Those of us working in the trenches are ill-informed about such things, so we don't understand them. Somehow we think that as long as demand is strong, why not increase capacity and reap an even bigger harvest?

So, it makes you wonder about this alleged coming pilot
shortage. Yeah, I know. Lots of retirements are looming and military pilots are saying it ain't worth it. But, are you hearing the numbers they're throwing around? Tens of thousands of new pilots needed soon.

Don't believe it. They (the airline industry) just want you to think pilot shortage. Remember The Grapes of Wrath? It's based on historical events. The California growers sent messengers to drought-stricken Oklahoma farmers telling them there was an acute shortage of fruit and vegetable pickers in their state. They put up billboards on Oklahoma highways that said Come to California: JOBS!

The Okies did so in droves. In fact so many of them showed up there weren't enough jobs. The growers low-balled wages. The “lucky” Okies―the ones who could find jobs―had no choice but to take the peanut wages offered. The growers patted themselves on the back. Mission accomplished. 

You, my young friend―you building up your time and working hard on your certificates―may have your heart set on landing one of the coveted airline jobs for which applicants are so scarce.  Don't get duped. Tell them to show you the money. Then and only then will you believe in their much hearlded coming great pilot shortage.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Zoo

PA announcements reverberated across the open concourse. Voices from one gate over-rode those of others. The man to my front sounded Caribbean, but his English was passable. Across the way another gate agent shouted at her passengers with a middle-eastern accent. Neither seemed to know of the existence of the word, “the.”

“Door is about to close!”

“Plane is on ground.”

Jeeze Louise, I thought. What, pray tell, is so hard about using “the”? I have spent time in major airports across Europe, and in all of them heard better, clearer English spoken on the PA than I do in our own nation's capitol.

My commuter flight home was supposed to depart in half an hour. I concentrated on my USA Today crossword puzzle to kill the time. Hard though.

The most annoying announcements were coming from my rear. An Indian woman was literally yelling in a high-pitched voice on her PA to her passengers. She talked so fast she was virtually unintelligible. Every word sounded alike. She sounded like my neighbor out practicing rapid-fire with his Ruger 10-22. The only word I could make out was “Cleveland,” in four syllables: Ca-leav-a-land.

Are there no Americans, I wondered, who want these jobs? Puzzling. Damned puzzling. Then again, maybe those people were naturalized American citizens, and not foreigners with green cards. Likely?

You don't supposed they could be—? Nope. Won't go there.

I fell back to my crossword but got a funny feeling, one I knew all too well. I looked up and glanced at my watch. It read 4:45 pm. My flight home was scheduled for 4:55. With ten minutes to go I should have heard something announced on the PA by now. With all the yell-over announcements and thick accents, had I missed something?

Then a young woman approached me and asked where I was going. I told her. She was going there too, and was worried that she too had missed the boarding announcement. She had flown in from South Africa and was terribly weary. “Shouldn't we be boarding?” she asked.

I told her we should. I careened around and looked at the departure board. Our flight was still scheduled to depart at 4:55. Now it was 4:50. Something was wrong―again.

We both looked over at the the boarding gate. Three other flights were being boarded. The agents were swamped. No use wading in among that crowd to ask about our flight.

People began to swarm around me because I was in uniform. “What's happening?” they asked. “Why aren't we boarding?” I just shook my head.

We were in the terminal served by our airline's regional carriers. It was a zoo here all the time―people being
funneled into cages, strange voices crowing, croaking, screeching. Actually, it was worse than a zoo. Things make sense in a zoo. Not here. Our flight wasn't going on time. Again. Third time in a row, for me.

People got angry. They wanted to know. They pulled out their smart phones. A man shouted, “The damned thing is delayed till 8pm!” A collective groan swept the crowd. Eyes turned toward me. Not friendly eyes.

“Why have they not told us?” they asked. I shrugged.

What, we all thought, was so hard about changing the time on that screen? What was so difficult about picking up the microphone and announcing that our flight was delayed?

I was surrounded in that room by dozens of businessmen and women. If they ran their office or shop like this they would be fired or out of business. They seethed. A man walked past me. “Goddamn airline,” he muttered as he passed.

I sought out a remote corner and sat down to wait out the delay. I had just finished a PC―proficiency check. It was three days of intense simulator and classroom work, culminating with a check flight. The instructors and examiners covered my job thoroughly and made sure I knew how to do it. They did a superior job training me to keep from bending metal and ripping apart bodies.

So why is it so hard for other people with much simpler responsibilities to do the simple things that make customers feel that somebody cares?

I believe any pilot put in charge of running the joint could do a hell of a lot better.

Sorrie for dee-lay. Plane is now leaving for Ro-a-no-kia.

You remember the blog in which wrote about the absurdity of some flight attendent PA announcements? ("Words I don't Want to Hear") Get ready to spit your coffee. Yesterday I heard this:

"Ladies and gentlemen, that noise you hear is the landing gear going down. That means we will be landing shortly."

Interesting picture
Two's in!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Let George Do It

In the 1930s when autopilots first came out, Ernie Gann and his peers had some fun with their “stewardesses,” as they called them then. They switched on the autopilot, which at the time was only a crude wing-leveler, then disconnected a flexible air hose that blew warm air into the cockpit. They taped a glove onto the hose and fixed the glove to the control yoke. Much amusement resulted when the lass was then invited up to watch the DC-3 fly itself.

The very name “autopilot” evokes funny images. Who can forget Leslie Neilson using “Otto” the inflatable autopilot in the movie, Airplane? We even give our real autopilots a name: George. If anyone knows where that term comes from, post a comment. I'd like to know. In the 757/767 we have three autopilots, labled L, C and R (left, center and right). Our standard practice is to engage the C unit for normal operations. So, when we get into the air and decide to relax we punch the C button and announce “Charlie has it,” or “Charles is in charge.”

Last week you might have read the widely tooted report that pilots are losing their flying skills because of automation. (Click here.) There may be some truth to it. You do get rusty when you don't practice much. But the article alleged that safety is at stake and accidents loom if pilots don't turn George, Charlie, or Otto off more often.

But as is often the case in the circus of journalism, the truth lies in what the report does not say. Incident reports provided by the very pilots who make errors clearly indicate that most flight deviations, such as altitude busts, occur when the autopilot is off. (Why would a pilot purposely turn himself in? Immunity. If you make a mistake and the FAA knows about it because they see it on their radar, you can get protect yourself from “certificate action” by self-reporting your violation. This is a good because it allows researchers to compile data and identify trends.)

But those hand-flying errors are not because the pilots are clumsy. It's because they are overloaded with information, and distracted by radio transmissions, checklists and other possible issues. The autopilot relives their workload.

Now, here is what the report does not say: we can't keep records of errors that never get committed because the autopilots are on, preventing them from happening. Consequently, we will never know how many accidents have been prevented by cockpit automation. Thousands, I suspect. Autopilots are good stuff.

The great majority of pilots I fly with hand-fly the jet for about the first 15 minutes. That's enough time to keep your touch polished. Coming down we normally turn it off about 15 minutes out from landing in good weather and closer in, in bad weather. Some weather conditions, such as ground visibility below 1200 feet require that we let the plane land itself.

There is one thing that bugs me a bit. I ride in the back of RJs a lot. And I can hear that little "cricket" sound (two chirps) in the cockpit when they turn the autopilot off. Too often they do it very close in to the runway. It seems they overuse the autopilot. But then, I know those guys fly five and six legs a day. They get tired. Let them use it.

So be glad your pilots have got George, Charlie and Otto, and tell the “investigative reporters” to write about something they can actually observe, because they can't watch us. We work behind closed doors.

Decision Height opens them for you.

A guy walks by a bar and sees a sign advertising Happy Hour, 5-7, drinks half price. He looks at his watch. It's 4:30. He thinks this is a good place to camp for a while. He goes in and sees another sign that says all drinks 25 cents. “Wow, how do you do that?” he asks the bartender.

"I've done well. Got all the dough I need. I just like to see people happy," he says.

The guy orders his drink and looks down at the end of the bar where two guys are sitting, their heads propped on their elbows, looking at their watches.

"What's up with those guys?" he asks the bartender.

The astonished bartender looks at him and says, "What planet have you been on, Buddy? Those are United pilots. They're waiting on Happy Hour." 
Changing out a flat on "Big Foot" (Boeing 777)

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Stuck Mic

A couple of weeks ago news broke about two pilots who were talking with a stuck mic. You probably remember. They were discussing the sexual orientation of their male flight attendants and the apparent ugliness of their female flight attendants. If you want to hear it, you can click here, but I don't recommend it. It's pretty disgusting. 

Anyway, their conversation went out over the airwaves and was recorded by FAA recorders and somehow it made its way into the news media. How does this happen?

Unintended radio transmissions can go out via a “stuck mic.” (“Mic” is short for microphone and is pronounced like “mike.”) Transmit buttons can get sticky. Dirt accumulates in them. Spilled liquid can short them. Or they just get too worn to function properly and they remain depressed after you release your thumb or finger after transmitting. The problem arises when you don't realize that the button is stuck in the transmit position. 

So after you have made your call to the tower, radar center or whatever, your mic remains “hot” and you don't know it. You turn to the other pilot and begin to chat. Everyone on the frequency hears it. Furthermore, because reception is inhibited during transmission, no one can call you to tell you that you have a stuck mic. It just stays stuck until you figure it out, usually by realizing that no one is calling you.

Thus the question begs, what do airline pilots talk about in the cockpit when the workload permits small talk? (This question will shed most readers now, but I'll go on.)

Ask a hundred pilots and you'll get a hundred differed answers, but I submit that the subject of the conversation is basically whatever the captain wants to talk about. He/she sets the tone. If he talks trash, then the conversation becomes trashy, or one-sided. If he is mostly silent, the first officer will probably clam up too.

Stuck mics happen every day, many times, but those guys picked a bad day to talk smack. The whole nation heard them fiercely disparage, with highly vulgar language, flight attendants, gays and women. The captain's (I presume) sex life was laid bare for all to hear.

In my experience I attest that the stuff you heard, if you
linked to that conversation, is extremely rare. Most of the gab I have heard, as both a working pilot and a jump-seater, is about ordinary stuff. Here's a rough hierarchy of common topics:

Politics are a sticky subject―rarely broached unless you can guess with a good degree of confidence which way the other guy leans. Got to remember, we're couped up with each other for three or four days and we don't need heated debates. That would erode crew coordination. So, if you determine he leans your way you can opine on political subjects, but otherwise, it's best to leave it alone.

There you have it. That duffus who let loose his foul opinions for all to hear is among the few.

Now tell me, if you had a stuck mic in your office, workplace, or home what would the world hear?

It's a big ocean. Follow that guy.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Dear Flight 904 Passenger

A friendly note from your caring Department of Transportation.

Last evening at Dulles Flying Field you no doubt benefited greatly from our new “3 Hour Tarmac Rule.” Just to refresh your memory, we passed that rule in 2009 because some folks in Rochester sat out a snowstorm on a jet for about 8 hours and were quite upset over it.

Consequently―and because we value your concerns (and your votes for our boss), we decided to limit the amount of time those incompetents can hold you hostage on the tarmac to just three hours. And―don't forget this―we can fine them up to $27,500 per passenger (yes, you read that right) if they keep you over three hours.

The airline people get their jollies finding excuses to strand you out there. Don't let them fool you into believing those storms are really hazardous to flight. And that old excuse that the airways are saturated is just too stale to swallow. If they tell you a gate is not currently available, it's probably a lie. Our airports will gladly rent them spare gates for, something around $27,500 per day. So you can easily see our logic. By saving all those fines, they could spend that money renting spare gates to take you back to when they have these delays. That's just plain good monetary policy, something we know a lot about here in Washington.

But, as to last night, those of you who thought you were going to LAX got a rude surprise. Your flight, delayed by “weather” (yeah, right) had to return to the gate to avoid busting our three hour rule. They almost didn't make it because the ramp was closed to personnel because of lightning. (FYI: our 3-hour rule is from door closing to door opening. That makes the airline people cut out of the lineup at 2 hours 15 minutes so that they can be sure and make it back to the gate before getting busted―dirty greedy capitalists.)

We understand your flight made it back to the gate with 12 minutes to spare. They cheated your government out of hundreds of thousands of dollars of fines that could have gone toward things we could do to greatly improve your lives. If you were listening to the pilots talking on the radio, which your airline, and only yours, allows at your seat, you probably heard the 777 next to you begging the ramp marshallers to hurry. They had only 3 minutes left. Another jet went 20 minutes over the limit. That's good news for our revenue-starved departments.

Now, as to your cancellation. Most unfortunate. Normally, the airline people will get back to the gate in under three hours, open the door, let anyone off who wants off, shut the door, get more fuel, and go back out and get in line, the back of the line of course. But your flight didn't do that. It canceled. Why? Because those ignominious pilots think they shouldn't work any longer than 16 hours. (But to be fair, that's our rule also.) The trip back to the gate cost your captain his duty day. He could not make it to LAX in under 16 hours. The airline called him off the flight and sent him home.

And you probably ask, why didn't they tap a a standby captain to take his place? He was the standby captain.

Thank you for your understanding. Our mission here is ACCOMPLISHED!

A message from your friendly Department of Transportation. Drop in and see us.

Happy flying!

p.s. Write in and tell us how you like our new logo:

Friday, August 5, 2011

Ode to Keavy

Some predictable words were said over Keavy Nenninger's casket last week. If you stay in the flying game long enough, you'll hear that old overworked platitude. You'll hear it again and again. You'll hear it at the funerals and the memorials. You'll read it in the obits and the columns, in bars and hangars. 

She/he died doing what she/he loved.

I don't want to hear it.

If Keavy had a crystal ball before she went up that day—two weeks ago—and that ball told her she would crash, do you think she would say, “Well, I think I'll go up anyway. I love it so much, dying will be worth it.”?

No. She wouldn't. So don't tell me that. Instead, tell me she died living and loving her life. Because that was the essence of who Keavy was.

I've been flying for over 40 years. I've lost many friends and acquaintances. Most were military pilots. A few of them died in spectacular crashes that made big news and even history. But when word reached me about Keavy it hit me worse than any of the others. It was a kick in the gut.

She was our “airport girl,” a daughter-figure to us graying pilots. She washed our planes, fueled them, begged rides, and sat for hours at a time with us listening to the tales and the techniques. She couldn't get enough. I remember numerous times seeing her running toward me, arms open, then the hug and the great smile. And the question I always knew was coming: “Are you flying today?”

Of course I also saw her throw her arms around the likes of Pete, Gordy, George, Tom, Bosch, Steve, B.J. and anyone else who had a plane. She especially loved us warbird drivers.

I took to Keavy because I never had a daughter. If I did, I would want her be like Keavy.

I knew she had a “life” off the airport too. You bet. She was a model student, a champion soccer player, and an achiever in every club or group she joined. Her energy for living was inexhaustible and she sowed it everywhere she went. Her enthusiasm for living life to its fullest was utterly contagious.

She soloed and got her license at sixteen. We missed her when she left for college. One of the most often asked questions at Moontown Airfield when her mom, Lisa, came out to fly, was, “When is Keavy coming back?”

After dazzling her professors at St. Louis University she collected an aerospace engineering degree, then got a commercial pilot certificate. She interned with Delta and used her travel passes to see the world.

A couple of months ago she called me and said she wanted to be a military pilot. “That's wasted talent,” I told her, but she wanted it badly—wanted another challenge.

Then I met an officer in charge of pilot recruiting in the Andrews Air Guard and told him about her. His eyes got big. “She's exactly what we're looking for,” he said. “Please have her get in touch with me.” She did. They began processing her application. I anticipated bragging to the guys that I had created a new second lieutenant and a new KC-135 tanker pilot. 

My best memory of Keavy was the day I saw three Yak-52s roaring overhead in a perfect military “vic” formation. They taxied in. One was Gordy's plane but he wasn't in it. In the front seat sat a grinning Emily Dover, another young lady who became smitten with the flying disease at our airport; and in the back, a beaming Keavy. Both wore hats that read, Women Fly. With those two around, our cups ran over with the sweet zests of life. They made us smile a lot. 

I didn't know Emily very well. Two years later her short life would end in an unexplained crash. Two years after that, Keavy would follow her into Eternity.

Now our cup is not so full without them, but our lives are richer because of them.

We bade So Long to Emily two years ago.

Now, So Long, Keavy. Our eyes will go wet every time we remember you.

And that will be often.

From Keavy's Facebook page: "I love this plane!"

The next-to-last entry in Keavy's Facebook page: "Gravity is over-rated!"
She was right.