Aug 27, 2008

A Day in the Life (37) Let's Do It Again.

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).

Time: CYVR Departure minus 0H15

A quick glance through the log book - no issues. Good.

Then it’s once more around the flight deck panels, assuring all the switches are properly set for another departure. The airplane arrived recently from Edmonton so we don’t have any “first flight of the day” checks. Also good.

We finish up the procedures then F/O Paula hands me the datalink printout of our IFR clearance. I read it in conjunction with my SID chart, brief our departure plan with her, double checking the entries in the flight computers. Even more quickly than in Montreal this morning, the whole procedure is complete and now I again take a moment to welcome the passengers on board, giving them a brief heads up on the snow storm in Montreal. “For those of you who are permanent residences of Vancouver, the white stuff you’ll see in Montreal is called snow. For those Montrealers on board heading home, it’s just a regular day with gusty winds and three meter snow drifts… Welcome to Canada in December.”

We’ve been keeping in touch with our dispatcher and load agent. In normal circumstances we use an average weight for each passenger and each piece of luggage in determining our takeoff weight. Then we track fuel to the nearest hundred kilos because we can, being careful to stay within the legally allowed limit. Today we are counting the males, females and children and using those more accurately averaged weights to hopefully gain room for a few more kilos of fuel.

The Shell driver is standing by in the flight deck as our final load numbers come in over the datalink. We can squeeze in ten more minutes of fuel, approximately 400 kilos. He scoots out to squirt that into our center tank. It’ll be almost full now. Our flight plan gives us enough fuel to fly to Montreal, hold for twenty minutes, then divert to Toronto and land with a half-hour of emergency fuel on board. That’s the law. We also have another ten minutes of contingency fuel that we may or may not need enroute. If we can save it along the way, then we could decide to use that holding over Montreal in case it would make the difference between landing or diverting to Toronto. Working with these relatively skimpy fuel reserves in bad weather causes a special kind of stress that has earned its own nickname. It’s called Pucker Factor - named for its effect on a certain anatomically sensitive area of the human body.

The re-fueler calls on the interphone to give us the number of liters he’s loaded. F/O Paula adds that to her notes to make all the fuel crosschecks work out. I see that our weight at pushback is at the exact legal maximum for this aircraft. In that number is 400 kg. for taxiing. I tell myself that if the tanks should be sloshing around, giving slightly variable flight deck readouts and we just happen to take off with say, 200 of those taxi kilos still in the tanks, would anyone notice? Only if we end up on the six o’clock news*.

The cabin door slams shut behind me and the lead ramp agent confirms that the refueller has closed up the wing panel and moved his truck out of the way, as he calls up on the intercom:

“Ready for pushback…”

“Standby,” I reply and nod to F/O Paula who’s already negotiating our pushback clearance with Vancouver ground control.

I flip the parking brake off and note the time. Another on sked departure.

Time: CYVR Departure minus 0H00


* The wings won’t fall off if we are heavier than our maximum take-off weight. Obivously if we were seriously over it our performance would be degraded and it could have long-term implications on the stress in the airframe. However the certificate of airworthiness would be technically voided, and that’s a really bad thing if you end up in court for any reason.

I remember early in my career an accident involving an Air Canada DC-9 that over-ran the end of the runway in Toronto after a rejected takeoff. The aircraft slid into a ravine and was destroyed and a couple of passengers were injured. The headline on the CBC radio news shortly after started out with the dire-toned information that the aircraft was OVERLOADED at takeoff! Listening to the details within the story, it turned out that the plane indeed was over it’s legally-allowed weight by two hundred pounds. They neglected to mention that the total weight of the aircraft was 108,000 lbs.! And that these ‘standard averages’ had been used to determine all this. What nonsense. And the slight weight deviance proved to be a total red-herring.

Perhaps one day our actual weights of all passengers and bags will be accurately determined (and charged by the kilo?), but until then, there is this ongoing vigilance over averaging and guesstimating and when it is okay, and when it’s not.

Aug 20, 2008


When I fly on a clear day, I often watch the ground go by and think, "What signs of intelligent life do I see from here? If I was an alien visitor how would I conclude that there are intelligent beings down there? What is an acceptable parameter for determining when some shape or design or happening can be accepted as evidence for a design rather than randomness?

This question arises in the movie Contact! Jodie Foster plays an astronomer involved with SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence). One day out of all the background noise of space she detects a different noise that resolves into numeric sequences that are repeating in a pattern beyond mere chance or random order.

I've read someone's thesis (Francis Sheaffer?) that human language proves the existence of God because, as I recall his explanation, it requires a certain transcendent view from beyond ourselves to comprehend language. I was somewhat amazed by the discovery of this essay because I had had a similar sense that language was significant just a while before. One morning, sitting quietly in my hotel room, getting ready to go to work, I heard the sound of water running in a wall and at first, while it was too faint to fully identify, it sounded like voices on the other side of the wall. That got me to thinking. Even if the water made the sounds of an entire Shakespeare play, but it only happened by chance, then it is not a sign of intelligent life. BUT if the laws of chance dictate that these sounds did not occur randomly, then it becomes a pretty good indicator that there is intelligence behind it.

Which got me to thinking - have you ever seen a word? We see these scratches on paper, or pixels on a screen but is that really what a word is? Don't these marks merely trigger some sort of signals in our brains, which then trigger even more mysterious and completely invisible thoughts and concepts and ideas and imaginings... A word (or certainly the greatest part of a word) is actually invisible. Yet so powerful.

Similarly have you ever heard a word? Again, we sense vibrations in the air which produce chemical reactions in our brains which again trigger amazing and invisible thoughts, ideas, concepts -- the mind. I find this an incredible thing.

And in a very real sense isn't it these invisible parts of words that make humans what we are?

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

--From Hamlet (I, v, 166-167)

Aug 13, 2008

A Day in the Life (36) One Down, One To Go.

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 - YVR Arrival Gate (Arrival, thirty-five minutes behind sked, so our planned 1:10 turn around time is now 0:35)
Time: CYVR Next Departure minus 0H35

There’s a flurry of activity now as I set the parking brake, and using hand signals communicate and co-ordinate engine shutdown and electrical transfer with the ground crew.

Around me the airplane begins sprouting doors. Cargo doors, galley doors, entrance doors, maintenance panels, and lavatory service panels spring open at the hands of eager ground crewmembers who’ve descended on us like ants on a watermelon. Inside our cabin the overhead bins spring out of the overhead sidewalls cascading coats computers and suitcases into the arms of passengers anxious to be on their way.

Meanwhile, in the relative sanctity of our flight deck, F/O Paula is jotting down fuel numbers and flight data on the paper plan and checking brake temps and other parameters too mysterious for captains to remember. We run quickly through our checklists securing the aircraft. This ship is going out again in an hour or so, saving us a few items that would apply for a full shutdown.

Then we’re busily stuffing our nests back into our flight bags being careful not to forget anything. We fumble for seat levers to extricate ourselves. Then carefully choreographing our movements in the small flight deck we get ourselves repacked in our shiny uniforms and out the flight deck door, bags in tow.

Paula stays behind for a few last good-byes while I scurry up to our ramp office. There’ll be a new flight plan to review and with the weather anticipated in Montreal tonight, I’ll want a chat with our dispatcher. There’s one word on my mind. Fuel. Need fuel, Need as much fuel as we can fit onboard.

Okay, that’s actually more than one word. But only one is important. Fuel.

One down one to go…

After finishing her PR assignment, FO Paula will break directly to the new aircraft and begin pre-flight preps, including asking the Shell driver to stay plugged in. Once we get our final load figures we’ll squeeze in every last drop of fuel our weight will allow.

I could run upstairs to a well-equipped flight planning center, but today I don’t have time. So I’ll use the flight planning computer stuck in a corner of an airport office used by other company departments. The room is buzzing with people working in, around and over one another and I wish it wasn’t. I’m hungry, and a little tired, and I need to concentrate on typing the right codes to bring up the full sized paper flight plan out of the depths of the printer. Then fumbling with more coded sequences on the local phone, I get the correct dispatcher on the line.

The latest YUL weather is not good. They are now experiencing the beginnings of what will become a full-blown winter blizzard and the alternates are also marginal. Given our full cabin we can carry enough fuel to use Toronto as an alternate with about 10 minutes extra over YUL for weather-related delays. That’s tight. Ottawa is closer but it’s affected by the same weather hitting Montreal. I’ll keep an eye on it enroute and hope that if needed it’ll buy us more time over the destination.

Tearing off the new plan with the latest load estimates, I dash for departure gate. A quick stop at the deli counter for two sandwiches to go. When I arrive at the departure lounge the passengers are already boarding. I “excuse me,” my way down through the crowded jetway. Folks occaisionally glance up and make comments like, “Oh, yes - please go ahead. We wouldn’t want to leave without you!” I guess it’s just airline travel that raises humour to a whole new level.

Before entering the flight deck I take thirty seconds to introduce myself to the new Purser while he continues to check boarding passes and greet passengers. Multi-tasking is a way of life in his job too.

Then it’s back into the seat. Remake my nest. Time to do the ramp check while gobbling down my sandwich. The other I toss over to F/O Paula who already has most of the flight plan typed into MacDoo. Teamwork.

Time: CYVR Departure minus 0H15

Aug 6, 2008

A Day in the Life (35) Taxi! Taxi!

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 - Runway 26 Rollout YVR

Time: CYVR Arrival minus 0H00 or Sked plus 0H30

F/O Paula pulls the thrust levers into the reverse detent and eases the nose of the big bus towards the horizon. As the buckets* deploy she catches the nose-up pitching moment with slight stick pressure. The nosewheel settles to the pavement, increasing the commotion in the flight deck.

The runway is long and our best exit point is about halfway along so she let’s the plane roll, leaving the reversers at idle. Forward thrust is blocked off we’re decelerating and fuel is expensive. That’s fine. The autobrakes gradually begin dragging at the wheels.

“Eighty knots,” I call. This is her signal that it’s time to put the reversers away. She slides her feet up to the brake pedals to apply pressure. Auto-halt goes away and leaves the stopping to Paula.

“GooseAir One Eleven, contact Vancouver ground on 127.15 when clear.”

“GooseAir One Eleven. Wilco.”

We’re down to a safe speed by the M4 exit and F/O Paula guides us into the off ramp as she clicks the thrust levers to the forward idle detent. While we’re on a straightaway I take back control of the airplane with the standard signal: “I have control,” adding “Nice job,” as we switch roles. Good work deserves to be recognized. At some of the less busy airports I enjoy letting the F/O taxi the plane into the gate. But this is a complex airport and today we’re running late. Time to keep it simple.

F/O Paula checks in with the ground controller, then sweeps her left hand across the panels accomplishing the post-landing drill. She calls company to let them know we’ll be at the gate in five minutes. They confirm our gate is available, which is good news. We’re running about a half hour behind schedule and the use of gates is timed so closely that there’s little slack in the system to compensate for changes. With a few quick key taps on MacDoo she pulls up the latest weather reports for Montreal, double-checking our departure gate and time. As suspected we’ll have a long jog over to the other terminal. The departure time is still showing “sked” so there’ll be no time for a sit-down lunch today.

As we turn into the ramp, I slow the aircraft to a crawl. Our gate is waiting for us, but I can’t see any ground crew. This is another problem with running behind schedule. Ground crews are a precious resource and we don’t have extra folks just hanging around waiting for us. Our original crew is now busy getting another flight ready for departure. If I stop the aircraft I know many passengers will assume we’re at the gate and begin standing in the aisles, anxiously opening the overhead bins.

I’m reaching for the PA mike, preparing to make the standard, “Please remain seated,” announcement which everyone will ignore anyway. Then FO Paula notices a tractor roaring around the corner on two wheels. “They’re here,” she calls. It’s great to see a crew hustling like this. Few things are as frustrating for pilots as working for several hours to save every possible minute and then watching with brakes set short of the gate as our ground crew slowly saunters over. Almost as frustrating as it is for our passengers. Today we’ve obviously drawn the “A Team.” Yes!

The Lead agent snaps me the required hand signals indicating all is prepared for arrival and I continue turning on the yellow lead-in line. I gently play the brakes against the remaining engine thrust. The delay between pedal application and result makes it a bit of an art. The goal is to run out kinetic energy at exactly the right spot - and no sooner because it’s a nuisance, and even a hazard to add break-away thrust to get moving again in this confined space. Some gates have depressions or cracks in the pavement as well that can suddenly accelerate or slow the plane, making the task trickier. Today, our vertical front window post stops a half-inch short of the horizontal bar marking the ideal spot. Sweet.

I set the brakes and note the official arrival time. Our scheduled turn-around would normally leave us an hour and ten minutes for flight planning and dining. Today we’ll be in scramble mode with just thirty-five minutes before we’re on our way again.

Time: CYVR Sked plus 00H35M. Next Departure 00H35

*note: "Buckets" - I'm dating myself with this anachronism, but I like it too much to let it die. Reverse thrusters used to actually look like big buckets that snapped out around the rear of the engine to block the thrust and redirect it. Now, the high-bypass engines do most of their reverser magic where we can't see it happen. But somewhere inside, the forward thrust channel is still being blocked by something that I imagine looks like "buckets." Besides, I'm running out of synonyms for 'reversers!' ...

Aug 2, 2008

On Seeing ....

One day in the early history of aviation some pilot dared to fly into clouds and the term Vertigo was coined - perhaps from a contraction of olde German for "Where'd he go?". No one knows the name of this intrepid aviator and if he or she actually survived the encounter, but eventually someone must have come back alive. And I'm betting they immediately sat down to figure out what pilots need to fly "blind." This led to the invention of flight instruments, which until recently looked something like this:

Nicknamed the standard "six pack" they comprise (from left to right across the top): Airspeed Indicator, Attitude Indicator and Altimeter. (while across the bottom we have): Turn Coordinator; Direction Indicator and Vertical Speed Indicator.

Each instrument has its idiosyncrasies that we must respect. But they aren't mysterious. Pilots can control the aircraft using only these gauges after a few hours of practice. We can even cut the casings open to analyze how the guts work if we want to understand them better.

Today, a typical flight panel looks something like this:

Situational awareness is definitely enhanced. Especially if the screen also includes an electronic map. But now the potential for information overload looms. And don't bother cutting anything open. Besides voiding your warranty you won't find much to look at besides microchips, solder and wafer boards.

But, the demands on the aviator remain the same.

During visual flight training pilots expand their normal perception abilities to navigate in three dimensions. And we get pretty good at it. But even at our best we're still pretty awkward compared to say, birds. When we add instruments to our bag of tricks though, we extend our flight envelope beyond our feathered mentors.

But it's a strange and unnatural experience. Our brains must now convert what our eyes see into something we can comprehend about the world around us. A world we know well but must see more with our memories than our vision. It's a little like viewing the Mona Lisa through coke bottle glasses and recalling what that smile really looks like.

Maneuvering an aircraft this way is much more demanding than visual flight. That's why, when the weather is poor airport traffic backs up. Approaches take longer. Everything takes longer. We need more time and airspace to make things happen.

Consequently, at the end of a long day's work as we turn towards that final landing there's nothing so sweet to a pilot's ears as an ATIS* message declaring: "Visual approaches are in effect..."

(*ATIS: Automatic Terminal Information Service - a report of current weather conditions)


There's something almost magical About a summer day

Just hanging out

At an airport....