Monday, December 9, 2013

The Big Crunch

I know. You’ve had your fill of my doleful lamentations about my many trips over the Andes Mountains, their splendor denied me by darkness. Both going and coming to destinations in the Deep South (ain’t talking about Mobile here) we pass over or near, in high silent pitch blackness, the second highest mountain range on the planet. It’s as if we have been forbidden by its creator and/or our scheduler to lay eyes on it, insignificant and unworthy specks that we are. Yet sometimes the Moon will, with a wink, pull back the ebony veil and show us a teasing glimpse below—a ghostly sheen of light reflected a quarter million miles onto the Andes’ soaring slopes.

But last week—thanks to the Sun’s annual pilgrimage to the December solstice—we were permitted a marvelous vista in broad daylight. The spectacle even inspired Bruce, our relief pilot, to hatch an idea that would hopefully enhance his quest for romance back home in Tulsa, which at that moment seemed about a million miles tailward.

Southbound, toward Buenos Aires, the sun was rising on the left just as I came back up from break—the middle of the three 3-hour breaks. Bruce, a bald and robust man in his mid-fifties, heaved himself out of my seat and went aft for a pee-break. Dave, the co-pilot, fortyish, sharp with book knowledge and eager to share it, briefed me on our progress. “We were two minutes early at the last waypoint and 1500 pounds down on the fuel.” I nodded. I punched the PROG button on the FMS. It predicted we would arrive at BA with enough gas to shoot an approach and then bolt for Montevideo if we couldn’t get in. But the forecast was CAVU, so we expected no fuel woes. “Oh,” Dave said, rubbing scratchy, tired eye sockets, “We’re comin’ up on the second terrain escape procedure.” I nodded again. We were about to cross the highest terrain on our route.

Bruce returned with coffee in hand and slid into the right seat. Then we bade goodnight to Dave as he disappeared into the dark bowels of the 767 for his break, the third and final one. I donned sunglasses and set the shades on my left side to filter the lazer brilliance coming out of the east.

Bruce—a Bostonian living like a fish out of water in Oklahoma— didn’t strike me as the kind of guy who thrilled too much over natural panoramas. He had seen his share of them in his Air Force career. He had zipped low across many a mountain range riding Phantoms and Vipers, been an instructor at the weapons school at Nellis (“Top Gun” in the navy) and had closed his career as an F-16 wing commander. I’ve flown with guys who had similar colorful and exciting backgrounds such as his who were introspective and brooding over the notion that the best of their lives was behind them.

Not Bruce. His deep Boston accented voice, his hearty laughs and commanding presence did not belie any regrets about being a 767 relief pilot. He liked it here. He imparted due respect to his captain—me—but with a skillful touch of tact took command of our coming layover in BA. Before we had left the ground he had already crafted our dining plans in the greatest beef-eating city on the planet, diplomatically securing Dave’s and my approval. But that pleasure was many hours in our future.

The sun had not yet risen high enough to spill its brilliance on the Andes as I opened my I-Pad to the terrain escape procedure for our route. It was a precaution in case we lost compression and had to make a “high dive” to thicker air. We, the crew, have hours of oxygen for our use, but the passengers have only a few minutes. If the terrain below prevents an emergency descent you have to know your escape route. I installed the routes on the EHSI where they showed up as dashed green lines. If we lost pressure we would plunge no lower than 19,000 feet until established on one of the green lines headed east. (Think of them as valleys.) Then we could continue down to 10,000—breathable air. By the time I got the EHSI set up for the procedure, the tops of the Andes lit up, on fire with the sun’s yellow rays.

“Wow!” I said to Bruce. “Look at that! We don’t see this very often.”

He nodded, somewhat unimpressed with it all, and gazed out front. His expression changed when I said, “It’s the Big Crunch.”

He asked what I meant. I explained how the collision of the
South American continental plate and the south Pacific plate had thrust the Andes up. His face lit up. He wanted to know more. I talked on. He asked me to diagram the concept, which I did on the back of a flight plan page. His questions came faster; his building enthusiasm for the geology excited me. I love thus stuff, although I don’t pretend to understand it in the depth of modern academic standards. Finally Bruce sat back and took it all in, smiling contentedly. He shook his head with a grin. “Just wait till I tell her this,” he mumbled. I asked who. “My girlfriend!” he said with an even bigger grin.

Turns out Bruce had met a woman who vacationed in the lake house next to his. She was a geologist with an oil company. His world and hers were so different communication wasn’t easy, even for a gregarious guy like himself. But now Bruce had the tools to break the ice. “She’ll love this,” he said, raising his camera for numerous shots ahead and out to his side. “Now what did you call that again?” he asked, gesturing to the parallel ridges out front.

“Folds,” I said. “If you really want to impress her, use the terms ‘anticlines’ and ‘synclines.’” He had captured me into his scheme.

He jotted the terms down and shook his head in abject delight. “She’s gonna love this!”

Now I had become not purveyor of scientific knowledge but an aider and abettor—a source of clever tools to help him achieve an intimate objective. But that was okay.

We drank in the grandeur of the Andes—a rare and not soon to be forgotten sight. And if Bruce’s plans materialize he will be hearing much, much more about the Big Crunch.


Bruce, the new geologist.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Did Magee Really Do That?

Those of you who read my recent series of posts called SevenSierra Whiskey (click on thetitle to jump to it) may remember a name that came up many times in that story—that of Dave Vroom. I thought I'd share with you a story I wrote about Dave and his biplane that appeared in 1997 in Airline Pilot Magazine. (Dave also makes an appearance in Tail of the Storm.) But why would Airline Pilot want its heavy metal drivers to read about a private pilot? Read it and enjoy.
(For a larger and easier to read image click on the icon at the bottom right corner that looks like this:)

See if you can pick out the error that the editors made, for which I forced them under threat of deadly force to publish a correction.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Last PC- Day 2

                 Bulletin: Decision Height has surpassed 200,000 page views.

The Day-2 briefing was the usual stuff. It hasn’t changed much in many years, with the notable exception of VNAV (vertical navigation) non-precision approaches. Using VNAV improves the safety and execution of non-precision approaches by eliminating the old “dive-and-drive” methods.

Day 2 started with a normal takeoff and vectors to intercept the final approach course to the NDB 35L at Colorado Springs. (We never practice procedure turns anymore. I guess the theory is there will never be a radar service outage.) In the days before glass cockpits NDB approaches were dreaded by most. They weren’t too bad though unless you had a crosswind. Then mental gymnastics came into play—“push the head of the needle,” “pull the tail,” etc. (or was it vice versa?).
Now days NDB approaches are too easy. Just punch the LNAV button (Lateral Navigation) and let ‘er go. One pilot is required to monitor the “raw” NDB information, and act as if he knows what he’s looking at. Most major air carrier pilots will never fly an actual NDB approach in their careers.

That went well for both of us and then it was on to the V1 cuts. That’s where the PI fails an engine at the “V1” call, (pilot not-flying calls “V1” at the calculated takeoff commit speed). For captains this calamity happens with 600 feet visibility, so you can only see a few runway stripes coming at you when it happens. When you lift the nose you lose all visual references and go 100% on the gauges.  

The challenge is to stay over the runway. The jet immediately veers toward the side with the dead engine and you have to stop it. The aircraft is only certified to cross the end of the runway at a minimum of 35 feet at max gross weight and one engine standing at attention. If you allow the plane to go off at even a small angle it could strike hangars, towers, and even the tails of other large planes waiting alongside the runway.  But the problem doesn’t end at the runway’s end.

You are only guaranteed to be free of obstacles (hills, buildings, towers, etc.) in a small corridor (I don’t know how wide it is) that extends along the runway centerline. Thus you must continue to track runway centerline until you climb through 1,500 feet above the airport elevation. When you are climbing at only 300 feet per minute, this can take an agonizingly long time. But what if there really is an obstacle out there that prevents you from tracking straight out? Many airports are like this.

In that case you fly the engine-out takeoff profile that is published for that airport. The profile may require you to climb to a higher altitude before acceleration, or command a turn soon after takeoff. At San Francisco, runway 1L and 1R for example, you would turn left a 6 miles to a heading of 300 degrees and hold that heading until you intercept the SFO radial 340, then track that radial. This procedure takes you between two mountains. You’ve got to get it right.

Over the years most of us have been trained to do this task of talking off on one engine to near perfection and I am amazed every time I do it after a year that it happens like clockwork. The co-pilots do the same—flawless, almost every time. Of course we always hear about people who can’t get it right and have to be re-trained every year, but I’ve never seen it go that bad.

The V1 cuts went well. We climbed out and got settled, told Departure Control we had an engine failure and requested radar vectors back around to land. Again we go through the old drill. The pilot not flying runs the emergency checklist. The captain informs the flight attendants what’s happening then makes a PA announcement. (We have some fun with this in the SIM. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the captain. I suggest you initiate a serious dialogue with your maker because you are about to meet him.”) Then we contact company dispatch, tell them our situation and make sure they notify the destination that we’re coming in on a wing and a prayer.

The flying pilot briefs the approach, including the missed approach, because you can bet the homestead you are either not going to break out of the fog, or a fire truck is going to dart out in front of you just as you are about to land. Now you’re powering out of there on one engine. It’s tricky, but again, I rarely see it screwed up, even on the first attempt.

Then we demonstrated that we can fly an auto-land in zero-zero weather. It’s easy—the plane does all the work—but it’s also un-nerving. You hit the concrete about one second after you see it.

After that the evaluation was done and the PI put us through a set of refreshers. The first was the deep stall recovery. Two days earlier we had seen a film of the Air France crash in the Atlantic in 2009. You remember—their pitot tube froze up in a storm they should have avoided and they chased erroneous airspeed indications that led to a huge climb. The climb led to a stall that they aggravated during their entire 35,000 foot fall to the ocean. The PI duplicated that situation and told us to recover, which we did. We lowered the nose and applied power. It was Private Pilot 101: Hold the nose up and the houses get smaller. Hold it up too much and they get bigger. Fast.

After the deep stall recovery he put us through a series of wind shear recoveries at Denver airport. That went fine, although one recovery went down to less than 100 feet above the ground. 

The last wind shear maneuver terminated on a ten mile final at Denver runway 35L. The PI froze the sim and began shutting it down. “Okay, Guys. Good job. You both passed. Let’s call it a day!”

I was studying the Denver airport, frozen ahead of us in the windshields. “Not yet,” I said.

Both my first officer and the PI looked blankly at me. “Huh?” They were both thinking, this fool wants more of this?

I turned to the PI. “Make it daylight,” I said. He shrugged and pushed a button. Brilliant light appeared in the wind shield and the Denver airport exploded in detail. “Now, let go the sim. I’ve got one last thing to do.”

The PI began chuckling. He guessed it. He let us go and the motion resumed. I pushed the throttles up and dumped the nose. The airspeed quickly built to 350 knots. The GPWS began screaming, “TERRAIN, PULL-UP! TERRAIN, PULL-UP!” We heard the noise of the wind building. I took the sim across the "teepee" terminal as fast as I could get it and as low as I dared, aiming just to the right of the tower. We flashed by the tower at eye level and I hauled back on the yoke.

“He’s gonna do it!” the PI yelled. “He’s gonna roll us!”

I got the nose about 30 degrees up and threw the yoke full right, fed in right rudder and pushed forward as we went inverted. The sim lurched and rocked on its hydraulic lifters. I managed to roll it through without crashing.

It was a fitting to end the last simulator in my career.

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Last PC—Day 1

It's been twenty-four years since I first walked into that simulator building. I was new and apprehensive then. The whirl of the cooling fans, the “whooshing” sound of the hydraulics and the ozone smell of a zillion volts racing through a thousand miles of cable had a way of intimidating you even before you mounted that high ladder to the tower of Boeing. You couldn't fathom how much money they were spending on those machines to train you, and you really didn't care. You just knew that serious eyes were watching to see if you could hack the program. And if you couldn't, you would walk away with a slap on your back and a wish of good luck in your future employment, ever remembering what a chance you had and you blew it.

I've been back time and again—once a year and steadily the intimidation monster has retreated into a dark corner and pouted. He has no sway over me anymore and hasn't had for years, or so I thought. This was my last visit before next year's retirement. You'd think there would be a little emotion involved, but it just seemed like another harried PC (Proficiency Check).

I had lunch in the cafeteria. Nothing much has changed there either. As usual I sat facing the empty wall where DC-3 Captain Ham Lee's portrait once hung. No one knows where it went. I miss him. His image's mysterious departure seemed to signify that the old ways don't cut it anymore. It's a new world in this airline business. Ham and I are dinosaurs. (Click here if you missed that story.)

Then it was off to the assigned briefing room. That smell, those halls and walkways with their historic displays along the walls encased in glass have never changed. The hall is always quiet and peaceful, like the calm before the proverbial storm. 

Year after year you pass ghosts. You see their pictures and their belongings—hats, gloves, uniform articles, their ancient E6-B “computers,” models of the planes they flew,  and an array of other paraphernalia that would befit a fine aviation museum. You pass a painting of a captain from the 1960s. His eyes seem to follow you. You’ve passed him so many times he remembers you. Then you reach one of those tiny briefing rooms with their dry eraser boards and their bland safety posters that haven't changed a bit in nearly 25 years. 

There I met my First Officer, Travis. It always starts the same. Like this: You sit down with your stick partner and chat idly until the PI (Pilot Instructor) sweeps in, shakes your hand and opens his materials. He exchanges pleasantries then looks at his watch. He says “[Inject a name here of one of his PI peers] is in Sim 6 with a crew now, but he should be finishing up soon. So we can get in early if you guys want to.”

Of course we vigorously nod. In early is out early, most of the time.

But on this, the final PC, at least one thing has changed that I never expected. I was assigned a simulator I had never before in all those years flown. It was 767 Sim-6, newer than the others, with better visuals. I thought, “This might be fun.” Wrong again.

Travis was an ex-USN Hornet driver. Very brainy. Knew everything in the books. I used to be intimidated by those types, but now I just shrug them off. I doubt Ham was much of a book man. Besides, I thought, I'll show this kid his book smarts can't hold a candle to my stick and rudder skills.

Travis chattered on during the small talk minutes while we waited with our PI for Sim-6 to disgorge its current victims so we could get on and begin our four hours of torture. He had just gotten back from vacation in Hawaii where he snorkeled. He surfaced for a breather and a surf boarder invited him to hang on and rest. After twenty minutes of chatting with the guy he realized he was talking to Tom Cruise. How novel—naval aviator meets Maverick on surf board. I think I'd prefer meeting Goose though. I’d ask him to talk to me.

We waited longer than our PI had expected. In fact the crew that was in Sim-6 went overtime. That usually meant some of their maneuvers needed to be repeated. That always gives you a queasy feeling.

Finally we weaved through the bowels of the simulator
building and found Sim-6. The PI stayed at the bottom filling out forms while Travis and I climbed the long ladder to the top. It was about as tall as a real 767. We went inside and made our nests. The PI arrived and began punching buttons on his side panel behind us. Then he got to immediate business. We had to work fast now, to finish on time.

Travis wanted to go first, so he took the controls. We launched off San Diego (SAN) runway 27 and turned north toward LAX. Almost immediately we got an engine fuel filter bypass caution light. We got out the checklist. The corrective action was simple—land at the nearest suitable airport. Our fuel was contaminated and the engine could quit at any moment. The entire Los Angeles basin was fogged in. The only logical choice was to turn back to SAN. We knew what the IP wanted us to do—he wanted to see a VNAV approach, which is a non-precision approach flown with an on-board computer generated glide path.

When we broke out of the fog that gargantuan and much loathed obstacle known so well to pilots who frequent SAN—the parking garage—raced at us getting bigger. I didn’t see any approach lights beyond it. (The parking garage is the reason there is not a precision approach to runway 27 at SAN and we have wondered in amazement for years why the city allowed it to be built there.) Travis hit the Go-Around button on the throttle, disconnected the autopilot and ordered flaps to 20. We got out of there and back into the safety of the fog. Back around again and the visibility was a bit better. We saw the approach lights, then the runway and Travis prepared to land.  


He slammed it on hard. “Nice 3-wire you got there,” I cracked. He shook his head. The IP then re-initialized us outside the final approach fix and let me take a turn at the VNAV approach.

I marveled over the realness of the visuals as we approached the virtual runway thinking this was going to be fun. I relaxed, remembering those early years when this place made me nervous. I heard the aircraft-generated voice calling height above the runway: “FIFTY, THIRTY, TEN.”

I began the flare at the usual 30 feet and retarded power. The nose jumped up and we ballooned. An imprecation that I don't normally use in polite conversation fell from my lips as I adjusted power and pitch to re-establish the flare. But the landing zone, identified by the last pair of white parallel stripes was rapidly coming. I knew if I tried to salvage the balloon into a nice landing I would go beyond the landing zone, which is not acceptable. So I “de-rotated” (“rolling it on” to the 727 and MD-88 crowd), decreased the pitch and hoped the impact would be tolerable.


The giant hydraulic actuators beneath the sim cab kicked us in the butts so hard it felt like vengeance. It was worse than Travis’ landing.

I have never had trouble landing a 767. I’ve had great landings and some that were a little firm—never really bad. But Sim-6’s landing logic surely had been programmed by a madman who had been rejected by the airlines and hated pilots with a devilish passion.

I stopped the sim and turned to the IP, mouth agape. His dispassionate comment as he punched more buttons preparing for the next event was, “Yeah, this sim is really pitch sensitive on landing.”

If you had the resolution to read all seven installments of my learning to land my RV-6, (the Seven Sierra Whiskey series) this is deja vu stuff.  Alan still has not learned to land a plane after 41 years doing it, and that’s exactly what I thought.

Next we practiced a suite of V1 cuts (engine blows up on runway after the take-off committment speed is reached) and single-engine approaches. Travis finally began to get the hang of landing the beast, but every time I tried it—BAM!!!! I started to lose confidence. I turned to the PI. “Hey, Man, I don't do this out on the line. I assure you I know how to land a 767.” He just nodded and grunted as he punched buttons to set us up for our next ration of chaos and terror.

When it was over I came down that long ladder scratching my head. Couldn't figure that thing out. If you didn't flare it you pranged it. If you did flare it—even ever so slightly—you ballooned, which inevitably resulted in an even worse prang.

But today was practice. Tomorrow would be validation day. Our PI would change hats from instructor to evaluator. We needed to iron out today’s mistakes. I had confidence in performing the maneuvers. As to the landings, things would be better tomorrow, I reckoned. I just need a good night's rest. Certainly I would have the hang of it tomorrow.

A shadowy Ham Lee stands in the corner lighting a cigarette, snickering. 

View from 41,000 over Hattiesburg, Mississippi looking toward Gulf Shores, Alabama, a distance of 115 miles. The arrow shows the location of high rise condos on the beach. We could see them clearly from such a distance. Taken yesterday on a ferry flight (no passengers or flight attendants) from Houston to Washington.