Sunday, March 20, 2011

Curt's Bad Day

At various times along the way I've written stories about other captains. Keep in mind that I can only get these second hand since I don't fly with other captains. First Officers like to unload on me about the bad flights they've had with certain captains. I hear their names regularly. “Captain Strange Glove” comes to mind. They call him that because he wears military Nomex flying gloves. That's only one of his many eccentricities. (He just returned from anger management counseling.) But let me tell you a story about another one, one I actually know.

Curt was that captain's first officer that day. Curt had no military experience. He had “come up through the ranks,” as they say, flying small airlines, and finally breaking into the big leagues. He had no—what should I call it?—“aggressive” flying experience. (By that I don't mean stunts and pushing the safety limits, but simply challenging oneself to do the more difficult tasks.) His captain, on the other hand, had plenty of it. A bit of unpleasantness between the two surfaced one fine day in Salt Lake City.

It was the captain's leg. They were on a high left downwind when they were cleared for the visual. The captain looked over his left shoulder and decided to make an “energy efficient” approach. To do this, you chop the power at just the right time, usually close to the runway, and throw the gear out to get some serious drag. Then you begin to slow down rapidly. As you come down and slowdown, you milk the flaps out one step at a time as airspeed allows. The goal is to reach 500 feet above the ground at full flaps, on target airspeed and on descent profile. Too high or too fast and you're out of there.

As the captain began the maneuver, Curt became nervous. He said, “I don't think this is gonna work.”

The captain uttered, “Lets take it on down and see if it works out.”

As the runway came into view Curt said, “I'm not comfortable with this.” (Safety specialists call that kind of statement a “red flag.”) But the captain continued. At 500 feet they were too fast and too high. Sometimes things don't work the way we plan them. The captain correctly initiated a go-around.

The tower cleared them for another left downwind visual. The captain was determined to get it right this time. He ordered the gear down a bit earlier than the first approach, figuring that should do the trick. He chopped the power and rolled in on the runway as if to bomb it. Half way through the turn Curt yelled loudly, “I CAN'T BELIEVE THIS! YOU'RE DOING THIS TO ME AGAIN!”

The captain told him to relax, things would work out all right. Curt fidgeted. They came down like the proverbial rock but met all the necessary parameters (barely) at 500 feet. The captain  spooled-up the engines and they made a normal landing. On the taxi to the gate Curt was visibly distressed, breathing heavily, sweating, shaking his head and mumbling. The captain glanced over at Curt and regarded him as a Nervous Nelly.

When the passengers had disembarked the captain went out onto the loading bridge and overheard Curt telling someone on his phone (wife presumably) about what happened. Curt hung up and said. “I'm considering removing myself from this trip with you.”

The captain knew he had done nothing wrong procedurally, except misjudge his first approach. The go-around decision was correct. But he knew he had violated Curt's trust. He apologized and said he would never put Curt in such a situation again. Curt demonstrated enormous maturity and professionalism—traits the captain lacked that day—and accepted the apology. The rest of the trip went very well, with Curt and the captain even enjoying dinner together on layover. And, they flew again on several other occasions.

I know that captain very well, and I know he learned a valuable lesson that day. He thought he had a good knowledge of what they call Cockpit Leadership and Resource Management. He had even led a seminar on the subject with a large group of military pilots and crew members. But he realized he didn't always walk the talk. He got better after that day.

I wonder what they call him now. “Captain Go Around”? “Captain Watch This!”?

What would you call him?

The "Super Moon" coming up over the Bermuda Triangle
Eye of God?

Above the planet on a wing and a prayer,
My grubby halo, a vapour trail in the empty air,
Across the clouds I see my shadow fly
Out of the corner of my watering eye


D.B. said...

Whatever happened to be stabilized on the approach at 1000 ft AGL? I thought that was in the SOP for pretty much all US airlines these days.

I see nothing wrong with a good visual downwind and approach whatever you are flying, but a Boeing or Airbus is not a Cessna, and the results of a major "oops" are much worse. I agree with the F/O.

Joanna said...

CA go around
CA try again

or, CA a$$hole :)

Squatch said...

Capt. Cockrell?

Jlspence said...

Captain Cockrell?

Rob said...


It's usually 500ft stablised approach. I do agree with the FO though but applaud them both on how they sorted it out on the ground, we all have our off days

Cedarglen said...

It just dumped a thoughful response. Maybe one of the boxes did not like my thoughts. I'll try again, later. There is more to this "Captain" than FO 'Curt' reports. - C.

Anonymous said...

Capt. Live and Learn?
Capt. I'm not quite an old dog yet?

If the captain truly did realize his error (in making Curt that uncomfortable), then good on him.

Anonymous said...

Longtime reader, first time poster. Sounds like the Capt had great intentions, not only wanting to teach the FO an efficient way to get an airplane on the ground, but also demonstrating his ability to recognize a bad setup and take the airplane around again. In fairness to the FO, he probably should not have done it in the first place in making him so uneasy but it really is too bad that the airlines doesn't let you guys take an empty airplane out for patterns to show new guys or some of the timid types, just how an airplane can be handled. The Capt learned a lesson about CRM but hopefully Curt learned how to get an airplane down without flying a downwind in the next area code.

Thanks for writing this blog!

Jeff in Afghanistan

Alan Cockrell said...

Very well said, Jeff. Every person I know (except perhaps one) holds you guys serving in the Afgan with the utmost regard and respect.

Anonymous said...

I would call him a men with a totally different background to Curt...

For the Captain, the whole thing was just flying. For Curt, not knowing his Captain's abilities to correctly judge a necessary this was a near-death-experience.

Remember how many flights have gone awfully wrong in the past, beginning with Manchester United's "Captain" blaring at his Co whilst killing (nearly) all on board in the 50s...

I don't blame the Captain nor Curt. But hey, even MEN can talk to each other before doing things at the edges of one another's envelope...

Kind regards,

Anonymous said...

Just read "Curt's Bad Day" and felt compelled to reply. As a low time SEL private, intsrument rated pilot, your question has been thought provoking. Couple of experiences in airliners.

First, arriving Charlotte, NC, as seen from my left seat exit row window, we are passing abeam the end of the approach runway. Typically, as I've been here before, we'll extend the downwind forever. But abruptly, I feel, and then hear, the power come off, and then flaps/slats start out, coupled with a significicant roll to the left. Roll continues well past 30 degrees of bank, and the gear starts out. I'm glued to the window, watching the threshold of the runway, which isn't moving much in my field of view. We arc down in the turn, airspeed sounds steady. We roll level just past the the threshold, the first set of stripes for the ILS runway slides by, and he greases it on!

And then there's this. In a 757, again in an exit window seat, we fly a stabilized approach to about 700 and 3/4. I can see the runway environment clearly. We enter the flare over the runway, the nose starts up, and the power comes back.

Cooincident with power reduction, we stall. I feel myself go weightless in the seat, and about the time I can say to myself "holy shit", we hit the runway. I'm looking at the right wing, waiting for struts to appear from the upper surfaces! Then I look outboard, and I cannot imagine what I'm seeing! The wing tips dissapeard downward below my line of sight from the cabin! I never knew the wing would flex that much!

Now, I've made some bone headed mistakes while flying, and am grateful for having gotten away with them, no thanks to me.

On the other side of the ledger, I've accomplished some impressive decision making, demonstrating flying skills remarked upon by instructors and contollers alike.

From my perspective, we call your example pilot by his first name, which is "Captain"


Chris said...

After reading the last couple of paragraphs, I agree with JTN.

Captain or just Sir. Skipper if I was feeling brave.

Ward said...

Haha, good story. As much as everything in the airlines is a procedure, do you think the FO's stories are really true or are they just typical belly-aching.

BTW - I just added a link to your blog.

Anonymous said...

Doesn't sound like there was very good teamwork on this flight deck. Good thing we have the internet so that First Officers have a bigger audience to complain about their Captains. What will be the forum of choice be when this FO is a Captain, Oh wait, he'll be perfect. Every FO will love to fly with HIM. He'll never make a bad call.

Cedarglen said...

It has been a LONG time. Have you quit the blog? Hmm. -C.