Saturday, July 14, 2012


No, Pete, it wasn't a water quantity circuit breaker, wise guy, but you're on the trail.

We were descending through flight level 200 when the GPWS (Ground Proximity Warning System) burst forth with its blaring admonition: TOO LOW! TERRAIN!

The flight manual is clear about this warning. When you get it you will execute the CFIT escape maneuver. It doesn't say check altitude (we did). It doesn't say look out the window to see if there are rocks about to rise up and smite you (we did). It doesn't say discuss whether this could be a false warning. (We didn't, but our facial expressions to each other effectively communicated that idea).

Oh yes, CFIT=Controlled Flight into Terrain, a highly imprudent maneuver.

The escape maneuver? A harrowing max power 20 degree deck angle climb.

So, what goes through my mind as this dire harbinger of our impending gloom pounds our eardrums? TOO LOW! TERRAIN! How can anything go through your mind when you are being shouted at except for the shouts? And, ironically, that's the whole point of designing the GPWS to shout.

I knew our altitude was 20,000 feet. I knew the mountains we were over were less than 10,000 feet, and even if I was wrong about our geographical location, I knew there were no mountains in the Lower 48 states that are over 14,500 feet. Of course I could have been wrong about which continent I was over, and that may have happened once or twice in my career. But one thing was certain, I was not going to execute the escape maneuver and scare the hell out of 185 people as well as put the engines through a torturous spool-up. I deviated from the flight manual. Broke a prime rule. Knew it. I nodded to Chris to just continue our descent. TOO LOW! TERRAIN!

As the powerful shouts from our speakers pounded our ears I threw off my belts and got out of the seat. I saw Chris speaking into the microphone. He was shouting to NORCAL Approach Control. “SAY AGAIN, PLEASE!” He couldn't understand their transmissions. I knew the flight attendants sitting on their jumpseats right behind the cockpit could hear the GPWS warnings; knew they were probably expecting to meet the maker at any moment. I knew even the passengers in first class could hear it. TOO LOW! TERRAIN!

The warnings were eating at our concentration and causing us to miss radio calls. Even NORCAL and every other aircraft on the frequency could hear the GPWS when Chris keyed the mic. A lot of people perhaps thought they were hearing an aircraft about to crash. TOO LOW! TERRAIN!

I groped for the correct circuit breaker. There are a gazillion of them on that overhead panel. I crouched behind the pilot seats and swept my eyes across the vast field of the tiny little knobs that looked like long lines of tiny toy soldiers standing in formation, with some itsy bitsy lettering below each one identifying it. I spotted the radio altimeter breakers. YES! Those must be it! I pulled them, knowing very well I had broken my second prime rule: Thou shalt not pull any circuit breakers unless directed to do so by thy maintenance facility. I pulled them. It didn't work. TOO LOW! TERRAIN!

I glanced out the windshield. There was SFO off in the distance. I heard Chris shout into his mic, “FIELD AND BRIDGE IN SIGHT!” Now I felt like Slim Pickens in that unforgettable scene in Dr. Strangelove where the B-52 copilot yells, “TARGET IN SIGHT. WHERE THE HELL IS MAJOR KONG?” Kong is standing atop a hydrogen bomb fiddling with electrical circuits. “I'll git these bumb bay doors open if it hair-lips everybody on Bear Creek.” TOO LOW! TERRAIN!

I kept searching. Chris shouted back at me. “WE'VE GOT TO CONFIGURE!” He was right. It was time to stop chasing errant circuit breakers, get ready to land and endure the deafening warnings. Then I spotted it—the GPWS circuit breaker. I pulled it. TOO LOW! TERR

Blessed silence. I clammored back into my seat. Chris made a perfect landing, we taxied in and shut down, and tried to calm the nervous people near the cockpit who had braced for their violent demise.

That night I spent much time on my laptop filling out incident reports, including my decision to declare “Captain's Emergency Authority” (CEA) for not executing the escape maneuver and pulling the circuit breakers without permission.

The company must self-report these types of deviations to the FAA . The Feds will review it. CEA will afford me immunity unless they think it was blatantly unwarranted. No news will be good news.

While I wait for the “no news” I'll craft the next Decision Height post to tell you about what happened the very next day. It was deja vu (all over again). But worse.

(Stay tuned, Fatquiver.)

And watch how coolly Major Kong handles these things:

He didn't file his reports.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Call Me

Just a few minutes short of six hours, it was—the Boston-San Francisco transcon. We joked. “Who's takin' the first break?” Chris shook his head. “Man, this is damn near a Boston-London run, without a relief pilot.” He yawned. I looked out across the Great Plains, then at the clock. I yawned. We were about half way. Then came the 'ding' that that turns you on your head.

Captain, one of the flight attendants in the back wants the paramedics to meet her at San Francisco.” My antennas went up. I circled my wagons. This spelled trouble.

She went on to explain. It seems the subject flight attendant had recently been tested for possible heart ailments. Now she was experiencing periodic stabbing back pain. She feared a looming heart attack, but didn't want too much attention. She could sweat it out to destination, she said.

My first thought was, where are we setting down if this turns worse? Denver lie 180 miles ahead and south of our course. That was the obvious place. I asked Chris to set up a conference call between our dispatcher and RadioDoc (made-up name). As he went about that, I thought about the earlier times when our company had its own medical staff. Whenever we called for advice we recognized the doc's voice (there were several of them). Those guys were well versed in aviation medicine—ex-miltary flight surgeons—and often gave us our physicals. Now, no more. The medical department was closed years ago and the staff fired.

Chris sent the ACARS message to Dispatch: “CALL ME.” Within seconds the message popped up. Frequency 129.4. Chris tuned in the frequency and tried to establish contact. But the frequency was full of static and a squeal so loud he could hardly understand the dispatcher. He swapped radios; tried dispatch on VHF-1. No joy. He asked for a different frequency but the dispatcher's reply was garbled. Chris tried to tell him we needed a RadioDoc conference call. More static. More squeals. More garbled voices. 

Then the ACARS printer spewed out a form. It wanted a bunch of information on the “patient.” I called back to the Lead and asked her for the info. With Chris shouting into VHF-2 trying to communicate, the lead flight attendant on the interphone spewing info to me, and me trying to monitor Denver Center on VHF-1, the hand basket slid closer to hell. My blood pressure started to rise, but I reminded myself that we were not in the process of crashing. Life will go on—for now.

Finally I got the info and handed it to Chris. He tried to read it to the person on the other end—we didn't know who that was. RadioDoc is a clinic somewhere that supposedly has contracted with our company to provide in-flight medical advice. The woman we heard through the static and squealing was talking too damn fast. She didn't understand radio-speak and had no idea we couldn't read her. I wondered even if she was a physician. Might she be a physician's assistant? Nurse? Candy-stripper sitting at home with her babies?

Chris, patience stretching thin, literally shouted into his mic: “GIVE US A DIFFERENT FREQUENCY!”

Twenty minutes into this goat rope, I noticed Denver passing abeam us. If we couldn't get the medical opinion we needed to assess this woman's condition, would it not be prudent to play it safe and divert to Denver? What a hell of a costly stop that would be. But suppose we passed up Denver and this woman was indeed in more serious trouble than she herself realized? In times like this I tend to notice the four stripes on my shoulder when I look aside, and they feel heavy

A new ACARS message flashed: “LET'S TRY 131.80.” Chris swiftly switched to the new frequency. It was just as bad as the first one. This was now more serious a problem than our medical situation. Without radio contact with Dispatch we are totally independent and cannot get the info we may need in any emergency situation. Your dispatcher is your link to the world, to safety. He gives you everything from weather and performance data to field conditions and game scores. You feel naked without Dispatch contact.

As Chris tried in vain to make sense of the voices on the other end of VHF-2, I began planning our divert to Denver. I decided I will not risk the woman's life and my career by bypassig a safe harbor in the throes of doubt. I was about to press the mic and tell Denver Center to clear us for diversion to Denver when Chris seemed to start making progress. He had to tell the woman to slow down her talking. After asking more questions she advised us to put the flight attendant on oxygen and continue to San Francisco while keeping an eye on her for changes or worsening.

What a relief. Chris signed off with Dispatch and slumped in his seat. I stared ahead and thought about how close we were forced to come to wasting tens of thousands of dollars and causing 185 people needless hours of delay.

The paramedics met us and examined the flight attendant. They found her fine. She merrily walked with us to the layover hotel.

But that wasn't the end of they day's ills. In only one hour after the RadioDoc fiasco—before we landed—the weight of the four stripes would be felt again when another kind of hell broke loose and I would be exercising “Captain's Emergency Authority.” That means, literally, breaking the rules to stay alive.

Stay tuned.

 Funny virga. Why that one little spot?