Oct 18, 2007

A Day in the Life (28) Set…

A description of a typical day's flight from Montreal to Vancouver and return - as a backdrop for a detailed, non-technical description of what an airline pilot does. (check left hand column for series index).

Log Entry 2003 - A320 Capt - TOD (Top of Descent)
Time: CYVR Arrival minus 0H30M

“GooseAir one eleven requesting descent.”

Vancouver center responds with a clearance to flight level 200 along the expected CANUCK STAR. F/O Paula dials in the altitude which confirms she also got the message.

The green hockey stick slides into the center of the nav screen track as she pushes the ALT knob on the autoflight panel. “Flight Level 390 for 200. Descent managed…” The Nav screen mode annunciator changes to signal the trolls have received the message, and we hear the sounds of engine power reducing while the banks of engine indicators shift accordingly. It used to spook me that with all this going on the thrust levers never moved, but I’m used to it now. I draw my cues from secondary indicators of engine thrust such as the background noise and the sounds of cabin air conditioning.

The nose smoothly pitches down, but not quite fast enough to prevent a small loss of airspeed. Sometimes pilots will ‘fiddle’ by using vertical speed mode to begin the descent while staying on the speed profile. Today FO Paula doesn't bother because she knows something the computer doesn't. She can see the clouds below and is already planning to use engine anti-ice during part of the descent. The speed and flight profile will be affected by the extra thrust produced in keeping the engine cowls warm.

“GooseAir one eleven leaving three nine zero for two zero zero,” I announce into the mike. Vancouver center responds with a curt “Roger,” between other transmissions.

After the buildup of activity, there’s now a lull and I use it to speak to the passengers. I make a few quick notes regarding our arrival time, and the latest weather, then I pause for a breath and to assume my “captainly P.A. voice” before beginning. And just before keying the P.A. mike, I double-check that the proper button is pushed on the audio control panel. Many a pilot has given his best announcement over the VHF channel and payed the price of having to listen to the caustic remarks of colleagues. “Nice announcement, now you’d better push the p.a. button and tell the passengers!”

A cloud layer hides the mountains below, and turrets of cumulus jutting above the general stratus deck tells us the ride will get rough again. I include an appropriate comment and flip on the seat-belt sign. Just as I finish the announcement and hang up the P.A. mike, I see the datalink printing out a long list of connection gate information. Ringing for Connie I make sure she knows about the chop during descent and pass the connection message to her so she can include this in her announcements. And then I tap in a few more codes to pull up the latest weather reports for Montreal.

As suspected, the visibility is now dropping rapidly and the newest forecast (still amended) is calling for one eighth of a mile visibility in blowing snow for the time of our arrival later tonight. I underline a few key phrases in the report and offer it to FO Paula. “Should be fun going home.”

My next chore is to send a message to Flight Dispatch telling them we will be looking for as much fuel as possible for the return flight. I know we will be close to gross takeoff weight, so there won’t be room to carry much extra. But every bit counts tonight and might make the difference between landing at Montreal, or diverting to the alternate. And while I'd like to use Ottawa, the closest airport, their forecast doesn't look very good. Keeping enough fuel for Toronto will shorten our available holding time over Montreal. Compromises, compromises.

We’re nearing our target altitude. Time to check with ATC for further descent so I key the mike again.

Time: CYVR Arrival minus 0H15

Oct 3, 2007

Accidental Airline

Jim Spilsbury's account of his Queen Charlotte Airlines turns out to be an enjoyable read, especially for someone now living in the area. This review gives a good idea of what the book is about:

Along with the usual tales of the pioneering days of commercial aviation, I found these two comments to be of particular interest:

Regarding the transition of QCA from bush flying to airline flying, Spilsbury says:

"It takes a different type of personality to deal with this kind of flying. It takes a person who can follow procedures, double-check every preparation, second-guess every assumption, stay within a wide margin of safety at all times and maintain unvarying habit over long periods of repetitive work. While remaining alert for the freak event. It isn't easy. It's why airline pilots are so well paid. It's also why the old rugged individualists of the bush flying era had such a hard time adjusting to the modern era of airline-type flying. Many of the most famous old pilots never made the transition. And very, very few of the old bush flying companies made the transition from airways to airlines." (page 163)

This transition is still going on. Over the last thirty years I've seen automation and better communication and information technology continue to impact the air traffic control system, and the airliners we fly. So operational methods continue to evolve. Flight dispatchers and air traffic controllers and computers play a much larger role than ever before in the pilots' pre-flight and in-flight decisions.

Yet, as always, the more things change, the more they stay the same. While there is no room in the flight deck for "bush-pilot mentality" where that term means taking unhealthy risks, the uncanny ability by the pilot to discern when the system is on the verge of failure, and to do something about it before disaster strikes, is still a crucial part of the pilot's skill set.

Spilsbury's second comment of interest focuses on business and politics in the airline industry (again, some things never change). Looking back over his years in airline management, he says:

"This was my loss of innocence in business politics. I won't say it made me into a cynic..., but it left me with a healthy skepticism about the way things work, especially in the upper storeys of the Canadian business world. There's all kinds of room for the small entrepreneur to get started, roll up his sleeves and build a profitable small business. But when you go beyond a certain point and start crowding the big boys, you soon find a different set of rules coming into play. ... They were a small group in this country then, if you got on the wrong side of them, they could cut you off at your bank, they could tie you up in red tape, they could get you coming and going." (page 243)

Interestingly, QCA was finally bought out by Russ Baker's Pacific Western Airlines. According to Spilsbury, Baker's methods relied upon "knowing the right people" rather than on sound business or operational tactics. Interestingly, PWA went on to eventually buy out larger rival Canadian Pacific Airlines, forming Canadi>n Airlines. And they were eventually taken over by Air Canada. Some at Air Canada (especially within the pilot's ranks where seniority list issues still rankle to this day) would claim that Baker's philosophy outlived him.

I'm just happy that life at GooseAir is always Hap Hap Happy and involves no underhanded business or political issues!

Oct 2, 2007

Boeing's Future Bet?

Boeing has "bet the farm" a few times in the past during the development of a new aircraft. That is they've pushed the envelope hard enough into new technological and economic territory, that had the new aircraft not been a success, it could have taken the company down with it.

I've seen some artist renditions futuristic blended body Boeings of the future, but this is the first report I've seen of an actual test vehicle/prototype:

Boeing Flies Blended Wing Body Research Aircraft

The innovative Boeing Blended Wing Body (BWB) research aircraft -- designated the X-48B -- flew for the first time July 20, 2007 at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

In this picture from August 14, an X-48B prototype is flying over Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base in California, in its fifth trip aloft since its debut flight in mid-July. Following a sixth flight not long ago, the aircraft is now on hiatus till sometime in October as Boeing--and partners NASA and the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory--perform maintenance, update software and flight control systems, and evaluate data from the first round of flights. Among the physical changes under way: engineers are taking off removable leading edges with extended slats and replacing them with slatless leading edges, NASA said.

In the design of Boeing's experimental X-48B aircraft, it's hard to know where the fuselage stops and the wings begin. Fittingly, the company is describing the craft as a "blended wing body," or BWB--and it's careful to point out the differences between this new shape and older, similar notions of the flying wing. That's partly because of the way the wings and fuselage come together, and partly because the BWB design allows for more volume inside, Boeing says.

If Boeing goes fully ahead with civilian transport production of this aircraft, this project would put them way ahead of Airbus in this type of fuel efficient design. Airbus has nothing on its drawing borad even close to this. Boeing would keep a commanding lead for the next 20 years if project gets green light.