Apr 25, 2008

Close Call

Recognizing how easy it is for his colleague to become disoriented during operations in poor visibility, this US Air 2998 pilot refuses to accept the takeoff clearance until his doubts are satisfied.

Not only is the United Airlines pilot confused, but the Air Traffic Controller misses key bits of information transmitted by the UA crew - such as the indication that they are near taxiway Kilo, and finally the clear statement that "We're on an active runway!" In fairness, I suspect that the controller also had other communications and duties going on behind the scenes causing her to miss United's confusion.

Communication breakdowns similar to this occur frequently in a typical day on the line. We're only human. That's why safety procedures such as a common ATC language on a common frequency were developed. That's why flight decks are crewed by two people. That's why pilots are trained to never accept an ATC clearance until they are sure it can be safely executed.

And most significantly, we should always be aware that a highly-competitive airline industry is under continual pressure to save time and money. This can easily erode traditional levels of safety as pilots and controllers feel the constant pressure to work too fast, and handle too many tasks in too little time.

Fly Safe!

Here's a longer version that follows on to resolution of the confusion:

Typical A320 landing view

This video shows typical Airbus flight deck auto-callouts, as well as the pilot actions and after-landing flow. Each airline has minor differences but this will give you an idea of what it's like sitting in the "pointy end" during a landing in good weather conditions.

The video notation says: This is recent video of an Airbus A-320 of SATA International making a final approach and landing at Funchal, Madeira Is., Portugal.
This airport is known as the "other Kai Tak" because of it's very difficult approach.

Apr 23, 2008

The Flying Car - revisited?

Are we getting one step closer to Aviatrix's dream of the flying car? Look at the chassis on this thing? As I recall, one of the impediments to the flying car was its failure to meet the normal requirements of bumpers, crash-worthiness, etc... If fuel-related necessities cause some changes in these areas .. and someone figures out how to slap a set of wings on this thing - we're set to drive and fly!

Apr 21, 2008

Flight Deck Culture - email chat

A blog reader, Louis Berlan and I recently exchanged some interesting Q & A's via email. With Louis' permission I've edited them into a post. I thought some of y'all might like to join in. We got to talking about how different airlines each develop their own way of working - their own culture.

Just noticed you talked about the Vickers Vanguard cockpit being bigger - Airliners.net comes to the rescue with this photo: Vickers Vanguard flight deck. Look at the space! You can definitely get into the seats from the outboard side!

Thanks for the Vanguard photo. I can see how, with that flight engineers chair installed, you'd have to get into the front seats from the outside. There'd be more room along the outside wall too with the pilot seats slid way back on the rails.

To be perfectly honest, I don't understand what that FE's chair is doing there. Maybe it's on a track and it swivels in and out of the FE's panel, because I don't know what his role would be right there - surely they can't have a guy there just to man the pedestal and the overhead? Never flown an airliner, but I bet he'd get in the way more than anything else.
Most of the pics of Vanguards are from museums/mockups, so they might have moved the chairs around a bit...

That forward center spot would be for the takeoff and landing phase. Procedures vary by airline, but the FE would be monitoring the engine parameters on the front panels during these critical phases of flight, as well as watching outside for traffic around congested airports. On some airlines the FE also does the final tweaking of the power levers during the takeoff roll and if an engine suddenly fails and needs to be secured, he'd be involved in moving/confirming the appropriate levers etc..

During less critical phases of flight the chair then slides back to the FE panel where he can twiddle the fuel system and all the other goodies.

Aha! Thanks for the indication. For some reason I've always been very surprised to hear that different airlines had different SOPs on a same type of aircraft. I can understand some of the differences on minutiae, but who does what during takeoff seems like a biggie to me (then again I'm only a lowly PPL, so...). I thought SOPs for an aircraft would be developed at launch by a group of pilots/airlines/manufacturers...

This is actually a point of contention any time a new airliner is added to the mix. You wouldn't believe the problems we had mixing Boeings (which use Thrust Levers) and MD (Douglas) planes that still called them Throttles (though on jet engines that was an anachronism). At an airline the key is to keep the procedures as common as possible to reduce training complexities/time/money when transitioning pilots to a new machine.

There are also some safety concerns because as you probably realize, when under duress, we will often revert to earlier drills or reactions we once learned. So to avoid difficulties like this the airlines each have their own culture they superimpose upon each new type of aircraft.

An old story tells how one day, during a reduced thrust takeoff, at an airline where the FE handled the throttles, the Captain saw a sudden need to go to full power on his engines. So he calls out: "Take-Off Power!"

The flight engineer, hears "Take off (the) power." And promptly closes the throttles.

Now, at most airlines the Captain or Pilot Flying are the only ones who handle the throttle/thrust levers during the takeoff and landings. I don't know if that's actually a true story or an airport legend but it illustrates the point.

I'm just trying to imagine the SOP landscape in a US airline with different mergers/acquisitions resulting in different planes, company habits, etc. That matrix is looking awfully complicated right now :)

This clash of airline cultures is one of the first things Flight Operations departments have to face after mergers. Happily the variations are limited by the fact that the physical layout of the flight deck is the largely same in all airlines*. And there are key certification items that must be accomplished in a specific manner, no matter who does them or whether they be done by a checklist or by memory.

So, if I walked onto a different company's A320 flight deck, I'd still be able to recognize what the flight crew were doing even if they do it differently than my company.

Do you mind if I turn this e-mail exchange we've been having into a blog?

I can just imagine the hell of Delta going to Airbus and configuring the cockpit their way, and NW doing it another way. Some companies I won't mention would probably stick the thrust levers in the lavatory...

Oh and I thought the first argument after a merger was the seniority list :)

I have absolutely no problem with the exchange becoming a blog post

Thanks Louis,
Aluwings, out.

Apr 14, 2008

Warning - New In-Flight Hazard!

I can only imagine... being stuck in a center seat between two non-stop cell phone yappers! I hope that the airlines will have the sense to resurrect the old "non-smoking" cabin concept, replacing it of course with the "non-cell-phone" zone! Sheesh.

The European Commission last week unveiled a pan-EU approach to licensing in-flight calls.

The EU is harmonizing the use of mobile communications on aircraft in EU airspace so that an estimated 90 percent of passengers who carry a mobile can make and receive calls, text messages and use email.

The aim is to provide a licensing "one-stop shop" for airlines and avoid a patchwork of approaches emerging as in-flight calls using personal mobile phones start to take off. Passenger phones would be linked to an on-board network that connects to the ground via satellite so that aircraft equipment is not affected. Phones will have to be switched off for take-off and landing, with usage only above 3000 metres. Passengers would be billed in the usual way. The Commission expects the service to be popular as it will be cheaper than the back-of-seat satellite services.

Measures will harmonize and simplify the technical requirements for using mobile phones and the way EU states will grant national licenses to airlines. An aircraft registered in France or Spain would be able to offer mobile communications services to passengers when flying over Germany or Hungary without having to apply for additional national licenses.

(Source: Reuters)

Apr 10, 2008

Recreational Hazards

This past week two aircraft crashed enroute to Fun 'N Sun in Florida, and caught my attention beyond the usual "...ask not for whom the bell tolls..."

A Zenair 601 crash is of interest because it is similar to my own aircraft. When any aircraft from an airliner to a Piper Cub crashes, until the cause is proven, there is always concern among fellow fliers of that model aircraft that a design, construction or procedural flaw may be stalking them too.

A second crash involved a Glassair aircraft and a pilot from a nearby town who is well-known at the local flying club. He apparently encountered some bad weather enroute which may have contributed to this one.

Aircraft are better-designed now than at any time in aviation history and pilots are generally very safety conscious. But at some point we have to face facts. Flying is more dangerous than sitting at home in our living rooms. That's part of what makes it attractive - not the danger - but the challenge for pilots to exercise risk management skills to minimize the dangers while experiencing the larger reality of speed, altitude and freedom of movement. And making it all work is part of the awesome sense of accomplishment pilots experience.

Aviation can be a hard teacher, and our normal human tendency to make mistakes in this foreign element often results in serious injury or death. I'm guessing it will ever be thus. So to those colleagues who have recently "flown west," Happy Landings! And continued adventures in your new sky.

Apr 9, 2008

Low and Slow is the way to go...

After spending thousands of hours cruising near the tropopause, I'm looking forward to spending some time up close and personal with the planet surface.

I found this excellent site for some inspiring desktop images of the local terrain:

Also, here's a video someone posted of her local seaplane adventure:

Apr 7, 2008

A Day in the Life (34) Terra Firma Finally!

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 - Final Approach

Time: CYVR Arrival minus 0H01

Suddenly we run out of things to do. Time to relax just a little and check the “big picture.”

“How’re we doing?” F/O Paula asks, glancing quickly at the overhead and forward panels. “Are we all up to date?”

The aircraft is flying squarely on the numbers, all the various electro-beasts working quietly away at what they get paid to do. The wheels are down - that’s a biggie. The flaps are extended, the spoilers are armed. Macdoo is happy with his view of the world.

“Yup,” I answer. “I do believe we’re all done except for one small detail.”

“What’s that?”

“Find earth.”

“I suspect it’ll be just where we left it,” she says.

“Where’s that?”

“Right at the end of the wheels.”

Vancouver ATC interrupts our version of witty repartee with a landing clearance. “GooseAir One Eleven, traffic clearing at Mike 4. You’re cleared to land.” I flip the nose-wheel landing light switch on.

Every pilot invents personal reminders and double checks to help ensure he never misses certain most critical items. I stare directly at the three green "wheels down" lights before acknowledging the landing clearance. That is probably a hangover from the days when Canadian tower controllers were required to include the phrase, "Check gear down" with every landing clearance issued to retractable gear aircraft. And on the few inevitable occasions when controllers mistakenly issued that reminder to a fixed gear aircraft, the reply was something like, "Roger, gear down and welded." We pilots can be a witty bunch, which is why you see so many of us developing second careers as stand-up comedians. Right.

The airport boundary fence is rapidly approaching as we descend through three hundred feet above the ground. “One Hundred Above,” some invisible Genie in the overhead speaker mumbles.

“Roger,” F/O Paula replies.

This is a critical challenge/response if we are descending in clouds. The decision point is rapidly approaching. But even in good weather, we're required to use the procedure in case F/O Paula has quietly checked out without telling me. This is euphemistically termed Pilot Incapacitation.

If she doesn't responded properly, I’d immediately take control and get the heck out of there, then deal with her lifeless corpse before returning for another approach. Not having much storage room in the flight deck, I've always wondered how the passengers would react watching the flight attendants dragging the deceased pilot back and dumping her in the aisle way.

If I were to expire at the controls, F/O Paula, after saving the day, is also expected to get out her seniority list and scratch off my name. One less obstacle keeping her from that left seat job! This is too significant an event to postpone. At least that's the standing joke (see previous comment about pilots and alternative careers.)

But today pilots are functioning on all cylinders.

The boundary fence slides under the nose and I look at the landing gear indicators one last time. Down and locked. The altimeter reaches the magic number and I make the final call: “Minimum, runway in sight.”

“Landing.” F/O Paula replies, disconnecting the autoflight. If we couldn't see the runway at that point, her other choice is “Go Around,” followed by an eruption of activity as we hurriedly distance ourselves from the planet.

Today she eases off the thrust, while raising the nose of the aircraft just a touch. There’s a second or two of anticipation, followed by a soft thump from somewhere deep in the aircraft. The smoothness of floating on air is replaced by the busy rumbling of wheels on asphalt.

Time: CYVR Arrival minus 0H00

Apr 5, 2008

Heli Logger

I was out walking in the woods when the S64 Helicopter happened by on a training flight. The aircraft is about the size of a Dash 8 airliner and is used in the forest industry to selectively log inaccessible slopes:


Skycrane Helicopter
Length: 70 ft 3 in
Rotor diameter: 72 ft
Height: 18 ft 7 in
Payload 20,000 lbs

Dash 8
length 84ft 3i,
Wing span 90ft
height 24ft 7i
Payload 15,000lbs

Apr 4, 2008

A Day in the Life (33) On the Beam…

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 - Turning Final

Time: CYVR Arrival minus 0H03

The auto-flight Genies are all locked onto the electronic glide slope signals.

We’ve been working hard since the descent started, trying to keep ahead of the ever-changing conditions. It’s often like that in flying. The workload swings from not much happening to more than you can handle very suddenly. We both feel the need for a break in the action so we can relax just a little and make sure we haven’t forgotten anything. But that can’t happen just yet. We’re crossing the Final Approach Fix for this runway and there’s more work to do.

“Gear Down, Landing Check,” F/O Paula announces. She reaches up to the autoflight panel and cancels the 180 knot speed restriction. The auto-thrust will now try to keep us flying at the best speed for the approach, but that means we need to decelerate another 40 knots or so while following the descending glideslope. More drag required.

Time for me to spring into action. I lean forward to reach the little wheel-shaped switch that lowers the landing gear. Noise erupts from the floor beneath our seats but it’s nothing compared to the noise the aircraft makes if we land with the gear retracted. I continue around the flight deck accomplishing the required details.

We cross-check our altimeters, and when the green annunciators for the wheels come on we both cross-check those. As we pass the actual FAF, F/O Paula calls it out and I read off the required altitude we should be flying at. One last confirmation that we are exactly where we’re supposed to be. On a day like this where the ground has been in sight for a while already, there is an element of over-kill in these procedures because they are essentially what we’ll do when landing in poor weather. But the goal is consistency. Pilots know that nothing results in embarrassing events like gear up landings more than unexpected breaks in our routine.

Aside from a fully visual approach to a runway that has no electronic landing aids, we carry out this pre-landing dance the same every time.

I’ve cross-checked our altitudes crossing the final fix, and I reset the altitude alert window to the altitude we’ll aim for in case of a missed approach. Now I need to report our position to Vancouver tower.

“Goose Air One Eleven, you’re number two on the approach. Traffic short final. Altimeter setting two-nine, decimal nine five.”

Meanwhile as if I’m not busy enough, F/O Paula wants a piece of me too. “Flaps 3,” She commands. I comply and barely have time to make the required calls before she commads, “Flaps Full,” She obviously wants to keep our distance from the traffic ahead. I reply quickly to Vancouver tower’s landing sequence, reading back the altimeter setting information while making the final flap setting, observing the indicators and finally call out the confirmation of our last flap increment.

“Flaps Full, Vee App 139, Autothrust.” This last call is a challenge to the pilot flying to double check that the automatic thrust system is in the desired status. “Speed,” F/O Paula responds.

One last referral to Macdoo’s status list and I’m done: “Landing Memo - No Blue.” Then I notice the engine anti-ice annunciators. A quick check on the temperature outside and I reach up to switch the engine heaters off. “We don’t need this any more - engine ice going off.” I look to make sure F/O Paula heard me. It’s not a big deal but it will have a small effect on the need for braking after touchdown.

We’re at 800 feet above the ground as the speed settles onto the target, the engines spool up to maintain that, and I spot the traffic ahead just touching down. He should have ample time to clear at the high speed taxyway before we need to do something drastic like break off our approach. Cool.

Time: CYVR Arrival minus 0H01M

Apr 1, 2008

A Day in the Life (32) Localizer Alive!

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 - Turning Final

Time: CYVR Arrival minus 0H05

“Goose Air One Eleven, are you good to intercept the ILS on that track?” Vancouver Arrival asks.

I glance over to F/O Paula who says what I’m thinking. “Sure, we can do it now, no problem.” I relay the message.

“Okay, bring your speed back further now to 180 until the FAF. Contact the tower now on 119.55, good-day.”

I repeat the restriction and frequency, tap the radio over to tower and make initial contact.

F/O Paula begins trading high speed drag for low speed drag as she slows further to 180 knots. She stick handles the airbus smoothly around the corner following the guide bars of the Flight Director. The ILS localizer signal is sliding into view as she calls for “Flaps 1.” I reach across the pedestal to move the flap lever, then watch the appropriate green annunciators appear. “Flaps 1. S speed.”

There is little deceleration available at this setting because the engines now shift to flight idle, spooling the engines just a little faster than before. This ensures a quick response if we suddenly need extra thrust in the high drag landing configuration.

So F/O Paula waits only until the airspeed is below the limit for the next flap increment, then calls for it: “Flaps 2.” I move the handle again and watch the indicators respond. When we’ve got the desired indications, I call my official response: “Flaps 2. F speed.”

While all this has been going on F/O Paula has been correcting the heading smoothly to capture the localizer. She’s doing a fine job of hand flying the Bus. Once pilots adjust to the electronic joystick, which takes all of about five minutes, they discover it’s an easy aircraft to fly. But using this "semi-automated" mode with the auto-pilot off and the flight directors on inflicts awkward workload distribution between the pilots. Something I'm sure Airbus never envisioned properly when they designed it. So, she calls for me to re-engage the autopilot. Now she’s free to push Otto’s buttons and rotate his dials as she desires, while I concentrate on the PNF duties.

The glideslope indicator has been teasing us for a long while, the indicator floating persistently just below our actual descent path. But now F/O Paula has managed to get us tucked under it. From here she can trigger the automation to lock on. She reaches across and smoothly stows the speed brakes as the airspeed is settling into the required 180 knots. Lovely.

Time: CYVR Arrival minus 0H03

Building a Boeing in 5 Minutes