Nov 30, 2006

Lever Down, Three Green, ... oops?

Log Entry 1975 - B727 S/O - CYXE - Final Approach

I'm may still be a rookie Second Officer, but I know it's not supposed to happen like this.

The Captain called "Before Landing Check." That's normal. The First Officer and I moved the appropriate switches, levers and buttons, and chanted the usual incantations. That's normal. The trusty old Boeing 727 responded with its arcane dialect of flashing lights and flickering needles. That's normal. But the landing gear control panel is now showing a complete set of both red and green lights. That's not normal.

The Captain swings into action. "Now look what you've done!" he accuses the First Officer. "Recycle it!" The First Officer, looking rather peevish, does so.

Recycling is a 'Pilots Favorite Remedy.' It generally provides a two-pronged approach to any aircraft abnormality. Hopefully it will just cause the problem to go away. More importantly, it stalls for time as we recover from the confusion of this unwelcome break in the routine, and then wonder what to do if the problem persists. Which it does. We stare sullenly at the three green and three red lights glowing at us from the landing gear sub-panel.

The Captain now turns to me: "Checklist?"

I have been frantically flipping through the manual. Let an engine quit, let a generator fail, let the gear not come down at all, that's okay. We've got a routine or a procedure to follow. But nowhere in our extensive catalog of emergency and abnormal procedures can I find anything to help with this case of all the red lights and all the green lights being on together, and deciding which ones to believe.

"There's nothing here for that particular abnormality," I tell him, "therefore this can't be happening."

He flashes me a look that suggests he is re-evaluating his belief in Crew Resource Management. He turns back to the controls and commences a go-around. Good decision. It's difficult to convince anyone that the touchdown was merely "firm" when the wheels collapse after landing.

Now the situation drastically departs from the day-to-day routine of line flying. It also departs from the routine of simulator training, where I've gained most of my experience with abnormal procedures. I begin to fully realize just how many things the simulator doesn't simulate; like other aircraft in the circuit and surprised air traffic controllers who really wish you wouldn't do this as their pattern is full right now. It doesn't simulate company dispatchers and local agents who want a new ETA. It doesn't simulate flight attendants who want to know what's happening, and should they tell the passengers or will you. Worst of all, neither line flying nor the simulator have prepared me for what I'm faced with next. as we turn downwind and the Captain says to me, "You'd better go back and check the viewing ports."

Now wait a minute! I've only been on the line for two months, and when I looked through those little ports during training nobody said I'd ever have to do it for real. Well, maybe they hinted there might be a small chance someday, but I'm really not up to it today. Besides, the first officer is more experienced. Wouldn't you rather trust him to do it? And where are those little windows located anyhow? And, worst of all, that cabin is full of PASSENGERS, and the simulator definitely never simulated passengers.

"On my way."

I wonder why I'm having difficulty getting up. Could my knees be so weak at the thought of performing in public? I unfasten my seat-belt. Ah, much better. I fumble with the 'Quick Reference Handbook.' My mind has gone blank regarding the exact location of the viewing ports. I picture myself running breathlessly back to to the flight deck after ripping out all the carpets. Hey guys! Just where are those little window-things anyway? It's not a pretty picture.

After refreshing my memory, I turn to leave the cockpit, pausing just an instant to assume what I hope is the proper air of calm authority, to reassure the passengers. Swinging open the door I brace myself expecting to confront one hundred and thirty anxious faces. Fortunately, there are only four. Unfortunately, they're the flight attendants. This shakes my confidence wondering what they know that I don't. The passengers are too preoccupied with the view of the city or their newspapers to notice me.

My calm air of authority begins to waver as I collapse to my knees, clawing at the carpet. I'm pretty sure one of the junior attendants makes a move towards the first aid oxygen, but the steady hand of a more experienced colleague stops her. It's just a new second officer falling apart under pressure -- no big deal.

" What's happening? Can we help?" they inquire, stepping closer.

Get off the carpet! "Er... it's just a small problem with an indicator. No sweat. Could you step back a little please?"

I peel back the industrial strength tapestry to expose the round wooden cover and pry it loose. Then, pressing my nose against the floor while my rear end waves reassuringly towards the assembled crowd, I am just able to see the two key red lines. The nose wheel is locked down. Gathering what's left of my composure, I head further back into the cabin.

An elderly lady raises a hand to catch my attention and I prepare to calm her. "Excuse me young man," she begins, "if this is going to take long, could I get another cup of coffee?" She's in much worse shape than she appears if she's prepared to drink another cup of airline coffee. I leave her in the capable hands of the flight attendant.

Then I'm on my knees excavating carpet again. The nearest seam is two rows away from the viewing ports and as I burrow along on my elbows, I suspect that my calm air of authority is lost forever. After confirming that the main wheels are also locked down, I retreat towards the sanctity of the cockpit, exiting the cabin with a last graceful stumble -- note for maintenance: get carpet fixed -- and arrive back in my seat with a crash.

"All three gear are showing down and locked," I report.

The Captain acknowledges this and continues his radio conversation with a military training jet which is sliding by along our left flank allowing the instructor to take a look. I resist wondering if this particular student pilot is one of those inevitable washouts encountered even in military flight schools, and why is he flying so close to our airplane.

Meanwhile, the First Officer is talking to Company maintenance personnel on the other radio. "Did you recycle it?" I hear them ask. Recycling is also a 'Mechanics Favorite Remedy.' Working my way through the checklists, I ensure that all is prepared for landing. I'm surprised at how quickly one low level circuit has used up our 'contact' fuel reserve. We are now slurping up the emergency fuel and landing with or without red lights is starting to seem like a very good idea.

As we roll out on the final approach track, ATC confirms that the crash vehicles have been called out. An unfortunate choice of terms I think to myself as I crane my neck for a view out the front window. I see a station wagon, and a jeep with a fire extinguisher in the back. It's comforting to think that if the galley catches fire at least the crew meals might be saved -- if we don't mind eating them well done.

The Captain scans the cockpit one last time. I figure he is checking, with his mind's eye, the intricate schematic diagrams of the landing gear system, calling upon his thousands of hours of experience and profound technical knowledge, to provide the missing piece to this puzzle. I'm certain that any moment he will turn to us lesser mortals and reveal in a Captainly Manner why all the red lights can be on if the gear is, in fact, down and locked. Instead he leans across the pedestal and gives the landing gear lever a sound thump on the end.

"Stupid thing," he remarks.

The micro-switch which senses the gear-handle position makes contact. Presto -- all the red lights go out. I am reminded of another 'Pilots Favorite Remedy,' thumping. Of course, I think to myself. How many times have I used the same technique on a recalcitrant television or vending machine. Why should a multi-million-dollar airplane be any different?

"You should have thought of that earlier," he growls at us, "and saved all this nonsense. Oh, it's lonely at the top."

We land smoothly -- well, not that smoothly, but the Captain assures us he just wanted to make certain the gear was truly locked down.

That's normal.

Nov 29, 2006

Airliner Flight Decks

Now that the flight deck doors are locked, this virtual reality visit may be the best we can do ... Here is a great website for exploring airliner flight decks. From what I see of the A320 simulation, the information is detailed and accurate. Enjoy!

<-- I'm not quite sure what to make of this panel. Maybe it's a homebuilt that wants to be an airliner one day when it grows up :-)

Nov 28, 2006

JAX is not my home...

Log Entry 1995 - A320 Capt. - Northern Florida - Cruise at FL350

The world is dim and disjointed tonight as I sit bathed in the light of instrument displays, punctuated by distant flashes of lightning outside the windshield. The first officer hunches over the radar screen, right arm propped up on the dash panel, left arm reaching towards the center console where he deftly tweaks the antenna controls, coaxing out a clearer message. Analyzing weather radar can sometimes feel like the electronic version of scanning chicken innards for omens.

I too should be consulting these flaring and fading oracles of colored electrons phosphoresing in that picture. And I will. But not now. I'm tired and the day's already been too long. For now I have time to gaze out my left side window, mesmerized. We're tracking along the eastern shore of Florida heading home from Miami to Montreal. The entire length of the sunshine state is billowing with thunderstorms. Global heat exchangers thrust stifling tropical air upwards towards frigid stratosphere. And two hundred miles ahead the coastline of the Carolinas sweeps eastward dragging another ephemeral curtain of flashing storms across our path.

I gaze through my reflection in the night-darkened glass panel. Lightning erupts in the swelling tops of a nearby storm that towers twenty-thousand feet above us. We're at 35,000 feet and I smile, recalling how experts back in the 1950s apparently thought that when jet liners came into service we'd be cruising consistently above the weather. Naive. How could the meteorologists of the day not have known the full height of these storms? WWII aircraft had already flown up to the edges of our sky, exploring the phenomenon of the jet stream and other mysteries. But perhaps they hadn't explored these heights regularly enough to understand yet? And wx radar was still being developed.

Then something catches my eye -- an airport close below us through a break in the undercast. It appears as a serene dark pool, in the midst of a noisy swarm of city lights. And within that darkness, tiny festive patterns of amber and green and blue lights outline runways and taxi-ways and ramps. A white beacon strobes briefly from the tower roof. It's a little like a mirage. An invitation to a rest and a warm bed and an end to the jorney. I recall the story of a senior colleague, who one night, finding himself hopelessly surrounded by two closing lines of thunderstorms, and with too little altitude and too little fuel, diverted into Swift Current, Saskatchewan. Which was a surprise for everyone because the airport at Swift Current had no services for a DC9. Yet, everyone lived to tell the tale. And I imagine briefly what it would be like tonight to heed the siren call of JAX, for I can see by the small magenta codes on my navigation screen, that this is Jacksonville, in northern Florida. I picture us circling gently downward into that peaceful pool to find safe harbor.

But JAX is not my home. It is not our destination. As much as I might long to avoid the strain and perhaps even fear that lies ahead tonight, as we challenge fifty thousand foot Goliaths of turbulence and hail and lightning, I know that that's exactly what we need to do - want to do. I'm confident from previous trips up and down this route that like so many pebbles in a slingshot, the aircraft and crew and fuel quantity will be sufficient. Once more we will safely cross over sea and foreign soil to regain the comforts of home. My own bed in my own room in my house on the outskirts of Montreal, with my family. That's where all that is most dear to me resides.

And I won't be satisfied with any diversion or other destination, no matter how much the rest might be welcome. When home looms on the horizon, nothing else will suffice. This urgency has even been named in the vocabulary of aviation accident investigators - "get-home-itis: the pilot presses on into deteriorating conditions..."

And maybe it's that cautionary thought that snaps me back from my reverie. I return my attention into the shadowy flight deck, and join the first officer in scanning ghostly radar images. By painstakingly coordinating them with the distant flashes out the front window, we begin to plot our way between the hazardous roiling clouds that separate us from home.

Nov 27, 2006

Flying is a "Do it yourself" project

It's always been that way. I recall the day I signed up for my private pilot lessons. The chief instructor plunked a huge pile of books, and assorted paraphanelia onto the counter and sent me on my way. For the next three days I sorted through all this material trying to figure out what an 'ammendment' was, and what it was supposed to amend, and what should I try to read before my first lesson. It was befuddling to say the least.

A few years later, when I'd landed my dream job with 'The Airline' I found myself sitting at a desk with a pile of books and amendments (at least by then I knew what that was) and paraphanlia wondering what to read first.

The more things change...