Posted by: harrisonjones | March 22, 2014

Malaysia 370

I have no comment on what may, or may not, have happened to Malaysia 370. My imagination is well displayed in my novels, but the only fact in this reality is that the fate of the passengers and crew is unknown. Seeking the truth and discovering the unknown has driven human nature though out history, and so it will be until this mystery is solved. That motivation has brought the great technological advancement that we now are discovering can be used with unintended consequences. The mystery has consumed the public and the news media has capitalized on the curiosity. As spoiled citizens of a great society, we have come to expect immediate gratification. We expect all issues to be resolved in a two hour movie or a novel of less than 100,000 words. Without resolution, anger will soon follow and protest will be the outlet for frustration. Blame will be assessed and ineptitude will not be tolerated.

I am often amazed at how little the public knows about aviation, and the non-stop news coverage of this event has reinforced my opinion. After two weeks of coverage, I can’t see that they have researched anything they broadcast to an uneducated audience. The only thing that amazes me more than the questions they ask, is the answers their experts give. Who knew it took such expert knowledge to turn off a transponder? The experts spin their answers like a political candidate debating a rival and advancing an agenda.

I’m confident that the true professionals, who are investigating the incident, already have answers and will soon have more. Don’t expect them to broadcast a news bulletin until resolution is at hand.

It’s gratifying to know that I can solve a mystery in a novel and satisfy a reader’s need for resolution, and while I can’t do the same in this reality, at least I won’t produce noise that might hinder those who can. The innocent passengers and crew on Malaysia 370, and every other flight in the world, deserve our very best effort. Thoughts and prayers to all.

Posted by: harrisonjones | February 22, 2014

Pilot Fatigue

       It is reported that the NTSB is considering pilot fatigue as a factor in the UPS Airbus accident in Birmingham. A big clue is the fact that the crew discussed fatigue during the flight. Of course it’s easy to say that if the approach had been made to the normal runway with an ILS available, the accident wouldn’t have occurred. On the other hand, anyone who plans a flight based on normal circumstances is assuming a premise that will eventually conclude tragically. The law of averages does not apply to flight planning. Worst case scenario is more appropriate and Murphy’s Law is not a myth. It’s also easy to say, “Well the pilots knew they were going to fly all night so they should have planned for it.” That logic can’t be disputed, however when you get up at 8 o’clock tomorrow morning, just go back to bed at noon and see how much sleep you get before 8 tomorrow night. Much easier said than done. Forcing yourself to sleep is a losing battle. The harder you try the more your brain speeds up.

            Night flying has been a problem since before the invention of landing lights. All nighters, midnight rockets, graveyard flights (Uh…let’s not go there although you may have noticed that there are graveyards next to a large percentage of airports), have always been a pain in the posterior. The attempt to solve the problem with Federal Aviation Regulations is largely ridiculous and evidenced by the fact that cargo carriers are governed by different rules than passenger carriers. If having no passengers on board means the pilot needs less rest then shouldn’t there be a sliding scale for passenger flights. I mean obviously the pilot with 400 passengers on board needs more rest than the pilot with only 50 souls on his airplane. Furthermore, why should a company operating airplanes in the 100 million dollar price range rely on the FAA to tell them how much rest their employee needs. The feds only require the company to meet the minimum standards, but they can implement more restrictive rest rules at their discretion. When an airplane comes down on your house or a shopping center or a school, the result on the ground is the same no matter what’s onboard. So is the purpose of the rule to protect passengers or cargo or people on the ground? If the rule varies based on what’s on board, should race, gender, or personal income be a factor?

            I maintain my position that humans are still the strangest creatures that God has created and although we have progressed, we are still slowly evolving.

Posted by: harrisonjones | January 15, 2014

The Jump Seat

The news media has discovered that there was a third person in the cockpit when Southwest landed at the wrong airport in Missouri. I’m sure they immediately assumed they had uncovered a scandal of epic proportion. In fact, it’s not unusual at all to have a jump seat rider aboard. There are several groups of people authorized to ride in the cockpit (with the captain’s permission) including off duty pilots, FAA inspectors, NTSB investigators, company dispatchers, secret service agents, air traffic controllers, flight attendant’s, ground school instructors, and mechanics in some circumstances. The secret service agents are the only people who do not need prior permission.

            I’ve been on both sides of that fence and benefitted greatly. When I became an airline ground school instructor I was authorized to ride the jump seat in order to observe the aircraft systems and the pilots operating procedures. It was an invaluable learning experience and I was always grateful to the crew for answering my questions and allowing me to observe the operation. Not to mention that I considered it great fun at that stage of my career.

            Years later, when the company hired me as a pilot, I always tried to make jump seat riders feel welcome. As a captain I think I had jump seat riders from all categories and never refused permission to ride in the cockpit. Off duty pilots usually strapped in and fell asleep unless there was food involved. FAA inspectors usually had questions and always provided a critique at debrief. When I checked out as captain on the 767, all the flight training was accomplished in the simulator. I actually took the check ride and received the type rating before I ever saw the inside of a real 767 cockpit. As luck would have it, when I went out for my initial operating experience with a line check captain, we had a FAA inspector on the jump seat. It wasn’t part of the program; he just needed a ride to Miami. None the less, the first time I sat in the seat, the FAA was looking over my shoulder. Fate continued to frown on me when we had to do a go around in Miami because the flight ahead of us decided to homestead on the runway. Fortunately I had become accustomed to single engine missed approaches in the simulator so doing one with two engines was a piece of cake.

            NTSB investigators were always informative and offered insight not generally available. I only had the secret service aboard one time and that was due to former President Carter and the First Lady riding in First Class. The Secret Service is…well, secretive. Ground school instructors were always most welcome in my cockpit due to my previous experience.

            Air traffic controllers ride the jump seat on what is called FAM (familiarization) flights. It was always great to put a face with the voice on the radio and discuss mutual problems and how to solve them. It was an opportunity to express our gratitude for the outstanding work they do. I once had an early morning departure out of one of our smaller stations and when we called for clearance, the controller mentioned that his wife would be a passenger on our flight. The game was on. Being a small airport, the controller was also working ground control and tower from the same frequency. We were the only airplane in town. When his wife came aboard I invited her into the cockpit at the gate and coached her on how to speak to her husband on the radio.

            “Ground…XXX 1214.”

            “Uh…XXX 1214…Ground. You sound just like my wife.”

            “Frank, I’ve been upgraded to First Class and I certainly hope there won’t be a delay for our departure.”

            “Yes dear, have a good flight.”

            “Bye Frank.”

            Not only did we get an expedited departure, we received favorable handling all the way to Atlanta. Sometimes I miss the game.

            Back to the subject at hand. The jump seat rider on the Southwest flight was a company dispatcher. Dispatchers are at the heart of airline operations and oversee, monitor and anticipate more things than we have time or space to discuss here. They work in a NASA environment with access to more information than Google. As a part of new hire pilot ground school, we were escorted to the airline’s Flight Control Center in Atlanta and each of us was allowed to sit with a dispatcher at his position for an hour. I was impressed. This guy is talking to pilots on the other side of the world and spitting out flight plans, providing weather, weight and balance, fuel loads and passenger information. He’s coordinating with ATC, crew scheduling, airport operations and I think Dominoes Pizza in Paris was part of one conversation. Meanwhile, he found time to answer my dumb questions.

            Need I say that it was always a pleasure to have a dispatcher as an observer on my jump seat and it was always comforting to know that they were somewhere in that little radio box no matter where I happened to be in the world.

            Who knows what led Southwest to the wrong patch of concrete? I’m just glad there was no damage and no injuries.

Posted by: harrisonjones | November 22, 2013

You can’t make this stuff up

As an aviation fiction writer, I’m continually looking for plot lines and scenarios to include in my novels. Of course, non-fiction writers just report the facts. Sometimes you could describe the same scenario in either genre. For instance, what if (my favorite fiction question) a flight crew forgot to turn on the anti-ice for approach and the wings loaded up and stalled?  What if they botched the recovery and crashed into someone’s house. Fact or fiction? (Colgan Air Buffalo, N.Y.)

What if a flight crew had to make an approach to an international airport without the aid of an ILS? What if the runway was nice and long and the weather was good. What if they came up ten feet short and destroyed the airplane? Fact or fiction? (Asiana San Francisco)

What if a flight crew, flying a modern 747, landed and then noticed that the Flight Management Computer indicated nine miles to destination? Oops, wrong airport! Fact or fiction? (Wichita )

What if an international flight crew stalled an Airbus at altitude and had 37,000 feet to work with, but failed to recover? Fact or fiction? (Air France)

What if a flight crew, flying a Boeing 737, made a missed approach (their second in as many tries) and stalled without recovery. Fact or fiction? (Russia this week)

How about a UPS Airbus clipping a hill on approach to Birmingham. Why do we need imagination to write fiction?  Just read the newspaper. Today’s Wall Street Journal has an article about an upcoming FAA report on automation and pilot performance. Here’s a quote, “Among the accidents and certain categories of incidents that were examined, roughly two-thirds of the pilots either had difficulty manually flying planes or made mistakes using flight computers.” Well, duh. Is there some other option I’m not aware of? The heck with making stuff up, I’m just gonna plagiarize the newspaper reports. Of course, I’d be criticized for writing scenarios that would not be plausible.

Posted by: harrisonjones | August 15, 2013

The Reality of Fiction

Writing fiction involves imagining a scenario and then attempting to insert one of your characters in order to describe what he or she experiences. That’s the easy part. The more difficult task is enticing your reader to join the scene on an emotional level. It is profoundly satisfying when someone tells me that they read the book and felt as if they were in the cockpit and knew the characters well. Okay, enough literary babbling about fiction and my warped imagination. I want to talk about reality and ask you to identify with real people and real situations.

You’re in a passenger seat on a Boeing 777, and you’ve occupied that tiny space for the last fourteen hours. Your butt is numb and you sincerely hope that you smell better than the person sitting next to you. The announcement of final approach into San Francisco is music to your ears and in mere minutes you will be free of the granite seat and on with your life. The safety briefings, fourteen hours ago, are distant and vague memories. The rumble of the landing gear extending into the slipstream at over 200 miles per hour is a comforting event. The wheels are your friends and will cushion the touchdown. The rumbling subsides as the airplane slows…

You’re sitting on the fold down flight attendant seat at mid-cabin. It has been a long duty day, but a smooth ocean crossing, and a nice San Francisco layover is an anticipated blessing. You snug the shoulder harness up and survey the cabin for landing. Your mental checklist assures you that all is well, but you consider the contingencies anyway. There are a few elderly passengers and small children that might present a challenge in an evacuation, but you note the seats occupied by able bodied men that you think might be able to keep their head and assist in an emergency. It occurs to you that one flight attendant for every fifty passengers might be good economics on a normal day, but not so much otherwise. The familiar rumbling and groaning sounds of final approach give you no cause for concern, and you begin to consider your after landing duties. The whine of the huge jet engines fades as the power is reduced for touchdown and…

You occupy the best seat in the house. The window seat in the left side of the cockpit is yours to enjoy. You’re in the process of falling in love with your new ride as you complete the initial operating requirements for the Boeing 777 type rating. The check captain has peppered you with tidbits of information all day to enhance the final stages of your training and now it’s time for the approach into San Francisco. You’re happy that visibility is good, but irritated by the fact that the ILS is not available. There is no electronic guidance for descent to the runway. Oh well, there are plenty of other automated options on the 777 and the auto throttles are available in any case. There is always the radical idea of turning off all the bells and whistles and flying the airplane yourself. You make your plan and brief the approach based on your choices, including the proper speeds and the unlikely possibility of a missed approach. The runway is in sight at the edge of the bay and you call for gear down, final flaps, and the checklist about five miles out over the water. You thumb the trim switches a few times to stabilize the airplane and remind yourself that it’s all over but the grease job. It becomes quiet now as the sterile cockpit rules dictate that no extraneous conversation is allowed. You click the seat one notch forward and one notch up to get the proper perspective to keep the runway centered in the windshield. The check captain in the right seat makes the routine call outs…200 above…100 above…

If there is a point to be made here, I guess it’s that fiction does not have to stray that far from reality to be tense and unpredictable. Good fiction usually involves the routine scene being interrupted by the unexpected and being drawn into the tension and emotion of dealing with it. Then you put the book down and go to bed. The unexpected occurrence in reality can sometimes create emotions that must be dealt with for a lifetime. The real story of the Asiana 777 in San Francisco will emerge over time and I pray for everyone involved.

Posted by: harrisonjones | January 25, 2013

Boeing Dreamliner Nightmare

News reports and the blogosphere are buzzing with articles about Boeing’s Dreamliner problems, so I thought I would add my comments while trying to avoid beating the proverbial, “Dead Horse.” Perhaps a slightly different perspective might offer insight not commonly reported. For instance, I’m sure you’re all wondering what the 787 flight crews are doing now that they no longer have a ride. It might be interesting to note that most airlines staff 7 flight crews for each airplane in the fleet and an international crew consists of either 3 or 4 pilots, depending on the length of the flight. Not to worry—most union contracts cover this situation and the pilots are free of duty (except for training obligations) and are paid a monthly guarantee. Money is such a nasty subject—let’s talk about airplanes.

Of course, the Dreamliner’s problem has been identified as a faulty battery design that can cause an in-flight fire. However, there is no warning light in the cockpit that annunciates a battery fire. Therefore, the crew is left to identify the problem by the process of elimination and then deal with the situation. Place yourself in the captain’s seat at flight level 390 for this one. You just reported 30° West (mid Atlantic) to Gander Control and you’re two hours from Canada. The head mama (flight attendant) calls to inform you that something smells funky in the cabin. You tell her to check the galley ovens to see if food has spilled and is burning. She informs you that she’s not stupid and has already done that. Reserving your opinion, you ask her to check the lavatories to see if someone has disabled the smoke alarm in order to enjoy a cigar. She reiterates that she is not ignorant and the lavs are clear. She opines that the odor is acrid and smells like it might be of an electrical nature. You tell her to wake the relief pilot and send him to the cockpit.

The first officer digs out the procedures manual and opens it to the red tab labeled Fire and Smoke. You’ve already eliminated the usual suspects and the appropriate procedure is titled, “Smoke/Fumes of Electrical, Air Conditioning, or Unknown Source.” From training, you remember that this procedure is ten pages of agonizing trouble shooting. The relief pilot shows up and when he opens the cockpit door, acrid fumes permeate the flight deck.

There are two memory items in this emergency checklist to be accomplished before reading the procedure. Oxygen mask…on/100%, and Crew communications …establish. All three pilots don the full face smoke/oxygen mask and select 100% rather than diluted demand, then each selects interphone with their mic selector switch. At this point you establish who is going to fly the airplane and who is going to do the checklist. The relief pilot begins to read checklist items and the first officer accomplishes them and verifies while you fly the airplane.

This procedure systematically eliminates power from different portions of the electrical system until the smoke or fumes disappear. I’ll try to give you the big picture without getting too technical (bear in mind that I’m talking airliners in general, not specifically 787). Each engine has a generator and each generator powers an AC bus and a DC bus. In addition to that, there are left and right AC emergency busses and left and right DC emergency busses. Lastly there is a battery direct bus that provides emergency DC. Throughout the system, there are inverters that convert DC to AC and transformer rectifiers that convert AC to DC. Redundancy abounds.

Taking the power off a bus is simple, however you lose all electrical items powered by that bus and that can be a problem. Things like the autopilot, radios, instruments, the intercom you’re using to talk to each other, the anti-ice system if you’re in icing conditions, cabin pressurization, certain flight control functions, cockpit lights if it’s at night, and on and on. The point is, it’s imperative that someone concentrates entirely on flying the airplane and cannot become involved in the checklist other than to be informed as to what components are inoperative or need to be switched to another bus.

Sorry about the techno babble, but the point is, it’s a long and complicated procedure performed under the duress of putting out the fire and finding a place to land as soon as possible. The other point I want to make is, the battery direct bus (the source of the problem on the 787) is the last thing on the ten page checklist to be eliminated. In fact, the battery itself cannot be eliminated other than removing power from the charger. We can be thankful that this problem occurred and was identified without anyone being hurt. The Dreamliner will be flying and successful long after most of us have taken our last flight. It’s the nature of the business.

Posted by: harrisonjones | December 16, 2012

The Next Big Thing

My friend and fellow author, Rob Akers, has requested that I answer the following questions as part of a blog hop. Rob is currently flying the line as captain for a major air carrier and working on his first novel, which I eagerly await. I appreciate the opportunity to participate in the blog hop and discuss the interview questions. I predict great success for Rob’s writing career and encourage you to follow his progress at http://robakers.wordpress.com. Now, if I can just answer the questions with some degree of literacy we’ll be in business.

What is the working title of your book?

Titles, like covers, are tough because they need to create immediate intrigue and also describe the essence of the story. The working title of my new project is Flight Grounded. My hope is that it will create curiosity as to why the flight is grounded and also convey that the book involves aviation. Don’t hold me to the title. It will probably change with each new chapter.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

The idea for all my books comes from the simple question, “What if.” I suppose that question is the basis for all fiction. As an airline captain, it was my responsibility to be prepared for all the, “What ifs.” What if an engine fails? What if a passenger has a heart attack? What if I have to land at the nearest airport? What if a rat named Mickey could talk. There are hundreds of, “What ifs,” and as a writer, I have the opportunity to answer the question in a hundred thousand words and title it Flight Grounded.

What genre does your book fall under?

Action, Thriller, Suspense, Mystery (no talking rats).

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

The airline crew would include either Harrison Ford or John Travolta as captain. Both are experienced pilots and know the lingo as well as the routine. Hokey aviation movies nauseate me. The flight attendants would be a diverse group in age and experience, as most flight crews are in reality.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

What if an international airline flight, en-route from Paris to Mumbai, encountered an in-flight emergency while over-flying Iran, requiring an immediate landing, and subsequently finding themselves stranded as revolution against the government breaks out? That’s a terrible sentence, but a less terrible synopsis.

If you plan to publish, will your book be self-published or published traditionally?

I hope to continue my relationship with my current publisher, Bluewater Press

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

My first two books, Equal Time Point and Shadow Flight, took about six months to draft and a year to complete. In both cases the final product was approximately 20,000 words less than the first draft and several chapters were shuffled or eliminated. I don’t seem to be getting faster or smarter with experience.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Aviation novels by John J. Nance and Thomas Block come to mind. While I lack their talent, I enjoy the challenge.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

My wife, Diane, is a genealogist and when I retired, she coerced me into writing   an autobiography to include in our family history. I found that I enjoyed writing and she encouraged me to write a novel. She inspires me on many levels and in many ways.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

I think most readers would agree that the two main elements of a novel are plot and character development. I try to balance the two, but I find myself favoring the characters. The plot has a beginning and an end. Whatever mystery or suspense the plot presents is eventually resolved and it becomes finite. The characters, however, should live on in the reader’s mind long after the last page is turned.

I personally do not enjoy reading an abundance of descriptive narrative, so I limit that verbiage as much as possible. If my characters have no interest in the color of the carpet, then I see no reason the reader would. If I keep my characters in scene and engaged, then hopefully the reader sees the world through their eyes.

I mentioned before that hokey aviation scenes make me nauseous so I try to include realism and credibility as important ingredients.  Aviation is exciting enough without interjecting impossible fantasy. Why does Mickey the rat wear those white gloves anyway? I hasten to add that Walt Disney was a Bazillionaire while my financial fate is somewhere in a holding pattern over nowhere. Maybe there is something to be said for fantasy.

 The Next Big Thing

Now I have a great treat for you. Let me introduce you to fellow aviator/author/blogger, Karlene Petitt. Karlene’s breakout novel, Flight for Control, is an absolute must read. Karlene’s fresh perspective, (she currently pilots an Airbus for a major airline) and her talent for placing the reader in scene alongside the characters, is an experience you simply do not want to miss. The conclusion of each chapter left me looking for answers that I was sure I would find if I read just a few more pages. Don’t you just hate it when an author grabs your emotions and won’t let go. Check out Karlene’s blog at http://karlenepetitt.blogspot.com/ and we’ll get her perspective on The Next Big Thing, and maybe a preview of a new project.

Posted by: harrisonjones | December 9, 2012

Flying Organs

Have you ever seen a horse fly? Probably not, but if you land at the airport in Lexington, Ky., it would not be unusual to see race horses being walked up the loading ramp for transport in a specially designed cargo jet. You didn’t think a million dollar stud would be hauled to California in a truck did you? Cows fly too. A Convair 880 cargo jet once aborted a takeoff at Miami International, and was unsuccessful at remaining within the airport boundary. The airplane broke up as it crossed a freeway, and most of the fatalities were the cargo of cows being transported to South America.

 Since I flew for a scheduled airline, oats and hay were not usually on the in-flight menu, but now that I think about it…there were a few mystery meals in the international operation. We were also equipped with lavatories, and pooper scoopers were not required. However, the cargo holds were utilized for profit even before they started charging for checked bags. Normally the weight data sheet simply lists the weight and location of the cargo without a clue as to what it consists of. The crew’s only consideration is how much runway is required for departure (not including the adjoining freeway) and where to set the stabilizer for takeoff.

 Occasionally a clue is offered as to what might be in the cargo hold. For instance if you notice the Brinks or Wells Fargo truck backed up to the airplane, you know that the Federal Reserve is a customer today. Ever wonder how much a few million in twenty dollar bills weighs? Also, there are certain cargo items that the captain must be informed of and agree to transport by signing a hazardous materials form. These items include infectious disease materials shipped by the CDC, radio-isotopes for medical purposes, and anything that is packed in dry ice. Didn’t know you were flying with the AIDS virus did you? If the captain agrees to transport these items, there are no special procedures as far as flying the airplane is concerned. However, if it becomes necessary to declare an emergency and the equipment is called out, it’s important to inform the fire chief that hazardous materials are on board. I’ve always wondered if such a declaration would result in watching the fire trucks beat a hasty retreat.

 Less hazardous, but none the less panic causing, items are balloons. Birthday balloons, anniversary balloons, wedding balloons, sometimes as big as a pillow. Sharp flight attendants are adept at letting the air out of passenger’s balloons, literally and figuratively. The problem, of course, is as the atmospheric pressure decreases in the climb, the internal pressure in the balloon causes it to swell until it pops and causes some unsuspecting passenger to soil themselves. As I mentioned before, we are not equipped with pooper scoopers.

 Oh, I almost forgot, I was going to talk about flying organs. Occasionally a special cargo is presented by courier and must be transported in the cockpit. The small box contains a human organ for transplant. The idea of having an extra set of eyes in the cockpit takes on a whole new meaning. It also opens your own eyes and gives you a different outlook on life. Flights carrying human organs are authorized to use the call sign, “Lifeguard.” This alerts ATC to expedite as much as possible. I took off from Atlanta late one night and was cleared direct to San Francisco. Pretty cool. The Federal Reserve does not get priority handling, which causes me to believe that some things are priceless.         

Posted by: harrisonjones | October 22, 2012

Today may be all we have

In the aftermath of a tragic airline accident, the number of human interest stories always equals the number of souls on board. Irony, coincidence, circumstance, and misfortune are all factors in why a passenger or crewmember happens to be on an ill fated flight. When Ernie Gann coined the phrase, “Fate is the Hunter,” I wonder if he knew the book title would resonate forevermore with the aviation community. We’ve all heard the stories of how a last minute ticket change placed an unlucky passenger on a doomed flight, or how a traffic jam saved someone else from making a flight that ended in disaster.  

In April of 2009, Isabelle Bonin supported her husband as he endured the stress of checking out on a new airplane. First Officer Pierre Bonin survived the gauntlet of a lengthy ground school, an intense simulator course, and finally the initial operating experience of flying the Airbus A-330. Fully qualified, he began flying the line in May and enjoyed the fruits of his labor, serving as first officer on international flights from his domicile in Paris.  

Late in the month, Pierre’s schedule had him flying a trip with a two day layover in Rio de Janeiro. It seemed like the perfect time to take advantage of the free flying privileges of airline employees, and he invited Isabelle to accompany him on the trip. A wonderful opportunity and what could possibly go wrong? Fate would not be kind to Isabelle and Pierre on the return flight from Rio to Paris. On the night of May, 31 Air France Flight 447, with Pierre at the controls, would plunge into the Atlantic with no survivors. The flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder revealed that the tragedy developed and unfolded over a period of several minutes. One can only wonder if Pierre thought about the fact that his wife, Isabelle, was sitting behind him in the cabin as he fought to control the airplane, descending at 10,000 feet per minute. A horror compounded by fate. 

It is not uncommon for crewmembers to bring wives or husbands along with them when they have a nice layover. My wife, Diane, the lovely and charming, beautiful and talented lady that endures me, has accompanied me many times. It was always my hope that she would sympathize with how hard I worked on my trips, but somehow I never achieved that goal. Whining didn’t work either. She’s a very perceptive woman.  

Let’s hope that Isabelle and Pierre enjoyed a wonderful two days in Rio, and I hope that somewhere in the hereafter, they are together once again. Today may be all we have.        

Posted by: harrisonjones | September 20, 2012

Needles in the Milk Jug

The illusion is that of flying around inside a milk jug and looking out. The milk jug is huge, and like an aluminum amoeba, my airplane swims blindly toward the bottom in hopes of escape. I briefly consider that I may be homogenized or pasteurized, but decide it doesn’t matter. I have been assured that the milk jug floats 400 feet above the ground and the earth, in all its green glory, still exists below it. Seeing is believing, and therefore I refuse to believe until I see it. I’m blind and paranoid in a milk jug, and wonder if I should pinch myself to see if I’m dreaming.

 A radio voice speaks in my left ear and clears me down to 5000 feet. Okay…I’m not dreaming, nor am I alone. The copilot stirs in his seat to my right and repeats the clearance to ATC. His real voice sounds bored in my right ear and electronically disinterested through the earpiece in my left. He looks at me and his eyes open a little wider when I double click the autopilot disconnect button; once to disengage it and again to silence the warning. I take satisfaction in the fact that my thumb is fast enough to silence Bitching Betty, the female electronic voice, before she can admonish me as to the great danger of the autopilot being off. Bitching Betty is paranoid too.

 I announce to the copilot that I will be hand flying the approach and he sits up a little straighter in his seat, as if something abnormal has occurred, or is about to. I am amused by his concern. My thumb fumbles the second click on the auto throttles and Bitching Betty quickly punishes my ineptitude by spouting a few syllables before I can shut her up. Did they use a female voice because they thought we wouldn’t hit a woman?

 I nudge the throttles back and the nose drops slightly to maintain speed. I imagine that I am churning milk with jet engines. The color and texture outside the windshield darkens and thickens as if we have descended from an area of skim into the 2% below. I tell myself to forget the stupid milk analogy and then immediately glance at the weather radar to see if the jug contains chocolate. Moisture appears at the corner of the windshield and I watch as it gathers to form a drop. The airspeed indicates 250 knots, but the drop creeps across the windshield at a snail’s pace. Go figure.

I switch my instruments from the map mode to raw data, and now instead of Google Maps, I’m looking at round dials and needles pointing in various directions. The copilot scratches his head, but silently stares at the map mode on his panel as if it were a security blanket. I brief him on the ILS approach and explain what I’m doing. He rogers the briefing and tightens his seatbelt.

Approach Control clears us for the ILS approach to Runway 9R when we’re 20 miles from the runway. I raise the armrests on my seat and stow them out of the way. Now I sit and wait for the needles to tell me what to do. Unlike Bitching Betty, the needles are silent and subtle and will not offer an opinion if I screw up. I like the needles. They point and wiggle and give me little clues to draw a picture in my mind—a mental Google Map rather than a visual one. The compass tells me our heading is 060 to join the final approach course of 092. The skinny needle on the compass points to the outer marker for the runway and invites me to turn to 70 degrees to follow it, but the skinny needle is a notorious tease and I think of it as a female. I refuse to be enticed by the skinny needle and maintain heading. I will force it to move around the compass until it points to 092 before I turn. I’m confident the skinny needle will submit to my will, which causes me to re-think the gender thing.

The plan is working and as skinny lazily moves, I slow the airplane so I don’t zip past the turn point like somebody squeezed a watermelon seed. The gentlemen flying the parallel approach might be offended if I intrude onto their Google Map.

Skinny slides past 85 degrees and the localizer bar wiggles off the left side of the indicator. I roll into a shallow right turn and adjust it so that the localizer bar centers up as I roll out. Skinny is pointing straight ahead. I love the needles.

The glide slope bar slowly moves down the face of the indicator and when it reaches halfway, I call for the gear down and additional flaps. I’m happy the auto throttles are not jockeying the power around during this process. The airplane slows with the gear and flap extension and the airspeed needle arrives at final approach speed as the glide slope bar centers. I lower the nose and the speed and descent stabilize. I’m irritated that I have to make a slight throttle adjustment. Skinny swings all the way around the dial and points behind us as we pass the marker. Skinny is a tease.

At 600 feet we exit the milk jug sooner than expected and there is the green earth as advertised. We are welcomed home by an array of white flashing lights leading to the concrete destination. Now I believe, and the paranoia subsides. I duck under the glide slope slightly to save a little runway, but I’m careful not to set Betty off on a glide slope rant that can’t be silenced until you make a correction. As we taxi in, I contemplate, what might be for dinner, and the copilot asks if he can try one of those approaches on the next trip. Skinny is now wandering aimlessly around the dial as if teasing him into a challenge. I’ll gladly see him fly a manual, raw data approach, but I’ll have to needle him a little first.

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