A United Airlines flight was struck by lightning shortly after takeoff from SFO this week. The crew returned to SFO safely and found little or no damage to the aircraft. Actual lightning strikes to aircraft are uncommon because there is normally not a path for the electricity to travel to ground. Even during taxi the aircraft is insulated from the ground by the rubber tires, just as an automobile is. The more common occurrence is what is called a static discharge. While flying in cloud, and usually near thunderstorms, static electricity can build up on the aircraft and then discharge to a nearby cloud (similar to cloud to cloud lightning). This can be quite a thrilling experience as most of the static builds up around the nose of the airplane and then travels aft in the form of a fireball accompanied by a loud bang as it discharges into the atmosphere. Explaining this phenomenon to the passengers can be a challenge and a test of your credibility; especially if you’re considering the need for a change of linen yourself.
The more common, and less thrilling, form of static is St. Elmo’s fire. As the atmosphere at the nose of the airplane ionizes, a bluish glow forms and little streaks of electricity dance across the windshield.
This can cause an adrenalin rush the first time you see it, but after that it becomes a pleasant diversion unless it evolves into a static discharge. There are several good You Tube videos of St. Elmo’s if you do a search.
The only problem associated with St. Elmo’s is that it is accompanied by radio static. In fact, if you’re flying in cloud and experience unexplained radio static, you can anticipate St. Elmo’s shortly. This is a nice thing to know because it gives you the chance to invite the flight attendants to the cockpit beforehand. St. Elmo’s accompanied by screams can be quite entertaining if properly orchestrated. Of course this requires a brief timeout from the accepted CRM protocol, but as long as you swear you didn’t know it was going to happen…
Fortunately, our friends in engineering have afforded us design protections from lightning and static discharges and normally little or no damage occurs during these events. Numerous static discharge wicks are installed on the airframe to prevent excessive static buildup. These are usually found near the wingtips and at the tail and provide a path for electrical discharge.
Another safety feature is called bonding straps. All adjacent metal parts of the airplane have these metal straps between them to provide a path for static electricity to flow; thus preventing arcing and the possibility of a spark causing a fire danger.
These design features are more important than ever now that we depend so heavily on electronics to fly the airplane. I’m thinking a huge surge protector for the autopilot might be in order…
The following is an excerpt from what I call my unauthorized autobiograpy—thus named because it wasn’t written for publication, but rather for a private family history. The excerpt serves as a preface for a video link at the end that is a Fate is the Hunter reminder.
Time and Place
Time and place are elements of life that every human being experiences from the moment of conception through eternity. Being in the right place at the right time may result in great fortune and happiness. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time may be most unfortunate. It can be the difference between success and failure or it may determine life and death. It provides opportunities for heroes and exposes cowardice in others.
I believe that everyone can identify a place and time that changed the direction of his or her life. In fact, most of us can probably recall several such events created by place and time. For instance, I found myself hanging out at a place called the Quick Shop in Forest Park, Ga., and portraying the 15-year-old hoodlum that I aspired to be, when the Love of my Life drove up to the same place at the same time. My personal and emotional life changed forever.
What fortuitous force places one at a specific place and time to enable such momentous events? The less fortunate would probably say dumb luck. Some would call it fate. Others might say divine intention. In any case, such fortunate, fateful, divinities are usually preceded by a long list of other events that led you to that place and time.
On March 28, 1969, my professional time and place came to pass. On that sunny afternoon, in Griffin Ga., I found myself sitting in the cockpit of a Cessna 150 preparing to commit an act of aviation for the first time in my life. Jim Phillips, my first and only flight instructor, was crammed into the right seat of the little two seat trainer, explaining what we were going to do. He pointed out the basic instruments and flight controls and talked about the engine start procedures and engine controls. He gave me a checklist and went over the items we would accomplish for each phase of the flight. He talked me through an engine start and we taxied out to the runway with Jim demonstrating how to steer with your feet—an alien concept unless you have driven a bulldozer.
We went through the before takeoff checks and Jim told me to rest my hands and feet on the controls so that I could feel how he moved them during takeoff. As we moved onto the runway and accelerated, he held the nose wheel right on the white stripe down the center. I kept thinking we should move into the right lane.
We lifted off and I watched the cars and houses get smaller. I was surprised how small the control movements were and how the airplane responded. Jim demonstrated straight and level flight and then let me try it. It was pretty ugly. We did turns, climbs, and descents and when he said it was time to head back to the airport, I could not believe that almost an hour had passed. I also realized that I had no idea where the airport was or how to find it. Jim pointed us in the right direction and entered the landing pattern. I still did not see the airport until the runway appeared in the windshield. I followed through on the controls as he landed the airplane and the tires chirped as we touched down.
I was hooked. It had been the most intriguing hour I could have ever expected. I knew that pilot’s lives and careers were measured by flying hours and I had heard people speak in awe of senior pilots who had accumulated thousands of hours in the air. To me that was unimaginable, but when Jim took my brand new pilot logbook and entered 1.1 hours under total duration of flight, I was pretty proud of it. I was excited about my 1.1 hours of flying time.
It did not occur to me that being in that place at that time, was both a conclusion and a beginning. It concluded several years of unlikely and unpredictable events, all necessary to produce my 1.1 hours, and it began several more years of even more unlikely, but just as unpredictable events, that would find me in another place and time that any sane person would have bet their life’s savings against.
The following video reminds us that we are not fully in control of our fate. It may be slow to load, but it’s well worth waiting for. http://www.youtube.com/watch_popup?v=cLj4akmncsA&feature=channel_video_title
First we had the Southwest flight attendant that went round the bend and now a Jet Blue captain who had a hard landing or maybe needs one. Before I board my next flight, I’m going to interview the entire flight crew and all the air traffic controllers. If any of them seem a little quirky, I’m demanding a full physiological workup. In fact, maybe we should consider the same procedure for our politicians before the next election.
While going postal might be condoned in some professions, I don’t think we’re going to be able to tolerate it in aviation. Who knows what personal circumstances might have caused Captain Osbon to meltdown? You can read the FBI Report here.
Stress in one’s personal life can sometimes affect professional performance and as pilots, it’s our responsibility to prevent that. No one, including airline captains, is immune to stress and distractions, but personal judgment is required to decide if he or she is fit to fly on a given day. Every captain is required to sign a dispatch release form before every flight with the following statement among others, “I consider all factors including my own physical condition satisfactory for this flight.” That’s an all inclusive declaration and sometimes a sick leave (maybe a day or maybe a year) is a good choice for everyone involved.
There are many resources available to help a pilot deal with such decisions, including the pilots union (ALPA) Professional Standards Committee. This committee consists of line pilots who counsel fellow crewmembers confidentially and are committed to maintaining the highest professional standards and performance. Many problems are sometimes solved without company involvement and peer pressure can be a strong motivator.
Once again the myth that first officers are somehow not mission-qualified has been debunked. In this case there was another captain on board to assist, but I assure you the flight would have landed safely in any case. The circumstances of this incident are unprecedented, but incapacitated crewmembers are not, and all first officers are fully qualified to continue the flight unassisted. Great job in this case.
I suppose the investigation will reveal all, and I hope Captain Osbon gets the help he needs. All investigations result in new regulations and all crewmembers will probably be measured for strait jackets in order to enhance the flex cuffs in the security kit.
This little boo boo occurred at KATL this morning. Fortunately there were no passengers involved and no injuries reported.
According to the “News” two mechanics were on board to test the engines and there was some problem with the brakes. Some mechanics are qualified to taxi the airplanes and are authorized to do so for the purpose of re-positioning the aircraft or for engine run ups. For obvious reasons, the engines cannot be advanced to takeoff thrust at the gate. Equipment and human beings would be blown all over the terminal area. I have no comment on this particular incident because I have no clue what happened and to speculate would be ridiculous and disrespectful to those involved. It did cause me to think about some of the experiences I’ve had with the braking system however and I thought I’d share some basic info with you.
The brake system on an airliner can be operated from several different hydraulic sources and can be pressurized from engine driven hydraulic pumps as well as an electrical auxiliary pump. There are also accumulators built into the system that can store enough pressure for several brake applications in case all else fails. Sounds foolproof doesn’t it, but accidents can still happen.
One way is a malfunction of the anti-skid system. If a main gear wheel locks up, the system removes pressure in order to prevent the tire from blowing out. Anti-skid circuits are normally automatically de-activated below about twenty knots and of course warning lights are available to announce malfunctions.
Here’s something else to think about. At takeoff power, the airplane will sometimes move even if the parking brake is set and the wheels don’t turn. If the pavement is wet or covered with ice or snow, you can almost count on it. If only one engine is run up, the airplane will also turn as it moves due to asymmetrical thrust. The classic example, of course, is the accident involving a 747 in Alaska many years ago. The airplane was cleared into position and hold on an icy runway and then the parking brake was set. When cleared for takeoff, the power was advanced and the airplane accelerated down the runway with the parking brake still applied. The wheels never turned and the airplane never reached takeoff speed.
Even a more normal situation can be complicated sometimes. I’ll use the MD-11 as an example. During ground operations in icing conditions with engine anti-ice on, the engines have to be run up to 50% at least every 15 minutes in order to shed accumulated ice from the spinner and fan blades. When this is accomplished on an iced over taxiway, it can be a problem. First of all, if you run all three engines up at once, you might move forward and the airplane in front of you might become an obstacle. The airplane behind you will probably have words for you too, when he is being bounced around in the hurricane you create while being bombarded with snow and ice. The trick, of course, is to turn the airplane at a forty-five degree angle on the taxiway before running the engines up. You try to run them up one at a time and hope the airplane doesn’t slide sideways on the ice. If that’s a problem and you have to run the wing engines up together, the narrow taxiway leaves little room for error if the airplane moves forward.
Sometimes you just can’t win and boo boo’s happen.
Oh, wait a minute, I think that’s supposed to be within 12 hours before the flight. Sadly, the morning news tells me that another airline pilot has been removed from a flight due to suspected intoxication. We all know how hard it is to find a flying job, especially with an airline, and it’s a tragedy to see a career come to an end in this manner. Please don’t think I’m condemning this individual because of something the news media reports. My previous blog titled, “Ground school for the news media,” sums up my opinion of their credibility on aviation matters. However, since the situation continues to occur more often than it should (Like…never), it’s a topic for discussion.
The FAA rule is simple; eight hours from bottle to throttle. Most airlines have more stringent rules and extend the time to at least 12 hours. If a pilot is tested and has an alcohol level of 0.02, he is removed from the flight and subject to losing his job. A level of 0.04 is cause for the FAA to revoke a license. In addition to that, most airlines also have a snitch rule. If a crewmember (including flight attendants) suspects that another crewmember is impaired and does not report it, they also are subject to termination. Of course random testing for drugs and alcohol are always in effect. Every pilot and flight attendant is occasionally met by the pee police when they report for duty or at the end of a flight and escorted to the restroom to spend some time with the little cup. I recently read a funny book (How to do a Stew, by Lee Heath) in which a flight attendant binged on water for three hours in order to meet the minimum requirement. Probably not so funny at the time, but I’m laughing anyway.
Approximately 11,000 random tests are conducted every year and the NTSB statistics show that a pilot is removed from a flight about once a month, either because of a random test or being reported. Losing a flying job and your license is bad enough, but if you actually fly the airplane while impaired, you are also committing a crime and can be sent to prison. All three pilots of a Boeing 727 crew met that fate in 1990. I think hotel lounges in layover cities suffered a financial hit for a long time after that.
Having said all that, airline accidents due to an impaired pilot are very rare. The last reported, that I know of, was in 1977 when a Japan Airlines Cargo DC-8 crashed on takeoff in Alaska. The captain far exceeded the limit. I’m happy to say that my personal experience with this subject has only been with the little cup in the restroom stall. I have flown with crewmembers who were admitted alcoholics, but they were aware of their problem and disciplined themselves accordingly while on duty. In fact, some of the best pilots I have ever flown with fell into that category. Not just good pilots, but enjoyable crewmembers as well. Fortunately, most airlines have a program for employees who are willing to admit they have an addiction and it seems to work very well.
As in all things aeronautical, judgment and discipline are essential factors and when those elements are abundant, many obstacles can be overcome. Flying high is a wonderful experience when measured by an altimeter. Not so much when measured by urine in a cup.
My God I must be getting old! I watched the morning news on a 52 inch TV and it occurred to me that when I was a kid, we had a similar size television and right in the middle of it was a 12 inch screen. Kind of like an Ipad mounted on a refrigerator. When I started driving, all the cars had am radios, no air conditioning, and straight shift transmissions. What a wonderful time to be alive and witness the evolution of technology. However, some things never change. The morning news is still about the human condition and the dumb things that people do. Air conditioned automobiles with satellite radios have not reduced the number of people who run into each other or try to occupy the same space as a telephone pole. For you youngsters, telephone poles are those things along the highway that allow land lines for those less fortunate who don’t have cell phones.
I’ve also experienced the evolution of technology in aviation. Incredible! I was there for the birth of the jet age and all the accidents that occurred due to high sink rates. It took a while for pilots to realize that jet engines don’t respond instantly like props do. The first passenger jets (707s and DC-8s) were considered modern marvels, but the technology was pretty basic. There were no flight directors, only raw data information. There was no emergency lighting system and cables connected the controls in the cockpit to the ailerons, rudder, and elevator. Literally fly by wire.
I’m sitting here looking at the TV screen and a huge cruise ship lying on its side in shallow water off Giglio (I thought that was an occupation, not an island). That ship is equipped with millions of dollars worth of useless technology—computer screens that show every land mass ahead and every rock below. A thousand years ago, some guy stood on the bow of a sailing ship with a rock tied to a rope and sounded the depth of the water below the keel. They didn’t hit the rocks and sailed safely on. Where is the guy with a rock and a rope when you need him?
We’re all tired of hearing shrinks talk about, “Automation complacency,” but once again we’re scratching our heads and wondering what went wrong. At the risk of repeating myself and continuing to beat a boring drum, we’ve become very good at programming computers, but we just can’t seem to program humans. Whatever happened to Crew Resource Management? Did the helmsman blindly take orders from the captain and steer for the rocks? Would it not be appropriate to say something like, “Captain, sir, there’s a rock ahead,” followed by, “Captain, sir, we’re all gonna die.” Of course there’s always the old standby and usually the last words on the recording, “OH S…” The more macho and laidback participants sometimes express the sentiment as, “AW S…” Same result.
You can dress a guy up in an Admiral’s suit with gold accessories, a cumber bund, and a ceremonial sword, but that doesn’t make him a captain of ships or airplanes. Perhaps the acronym CRM should stand for Character, Responsibility, and Manning up, instead of Crew Resource Management. Any shrinks out there with a viewpoint?
The news that our troops are leaving Iraq comes much later than most of us would have hoped for. It’s been almost nine years since the first courageous soldiers went over the berm at the Kuwait—Iraq border. I’m sure there are many thousands of people, who were involved in those first few tumultuous months of 2003, who are reflecting on vivid memories of a boiling desert sun and long tension filled nights. I, for one, am grateful for the effort and sacrifice of each of those patriots. March 19 marked the opening of the invasion with an air attack on leadership targets and the next night, ground troops crossed the berm, but the operation had begun long before that time.
In January of 2003, my airline posted a request for volunteers to fly military charters, both domestic and international. Being the adventurous type, and suffering through a month of flying all nighters back and forth to Brazil, I thought it sounded like a good idea. On the 27th, crew scheduling called and assigned me a charter. I met my crew that afternoon and we deadheaded to Frankfurt, Germany on the scheduled evening flight. After a 36 hour layover, we met the inbound charter flight from the U.S. the next night. The MD-11 was filled with U.S. Marines, bound for Kuwait. They stretched their legs in the military terminal while we refueled and the flight attendants supervised restocking the galleys. After takeoff, we jogged a little to the east to avoid French airspace (they would not clear military charters to transit) and headed for the Mediterranean. The sun came up as we passed over the Red Sea from Egypt into Saudi Arabia. The airway took us along the Persian Gulf to the airport just south of Kuwait City. The long parallel runways were located just thirty miles from the Iraqi border and the port of Al Faw was visible with the city of Basra beyond. We blocked in after six hours and thirty minutes and the Marines unloaded their baggage and cargo before moving to the sand between the runways to build their tent city. They would be joined by tens of thousands of others before March 19.
In February, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld officially activated the Civil Reserve Air Fleet and as civilian volunteers, we were assigned to the Air Force Air Mobility Command. I was initially assigned to the European staging area at Aviano Air Force Base near Venice, Italy. After two weeks with little flying, the plan was changed and we rotated back to Atlanta. In March, I flew CRAF flights from Ft. Hood, Texas, Ft. Riley, Kansas, and Ft. Bragg North Carolina. We stumbled over every radio call until we got used to answering Air Force call signs. The European staging area was moved to Rome, Italy and I happened to be at home when the War officially began. Watching the attack on TV, I somehow felt responsible for all the troops I had transported and prayed for their safety.
My next assignment was a flight from Warner Robbins Air Force Base to Rome. I would remain in Rome for a month and fly the Kuwait shuttle. Chemical suits and mask became a part of our preflight as did a secret security briefing for each flight. The Iraqis were able to lob a few missiles into Kuwait, but our guys stopped that pretty fast. There is legislation pending in the congress now that would provide anti-missile equipment for all CRAF flights in the future, but all we had was a million dollar life insurance policy and the security briefing. The airways we flew were not published and changed everyday. We made tactical approaches into Kuwait at night and used landing lights only after crossing the boundary. It was a different kind of flying, but we never really felt unsafe. Thirty miles to the north of the runway was unsafe and the heros that crossed the berm will always have my deepest respect. Some of our airplanes were converted to med-evac configurations and were soon in great demand. Sadly, watching the KIA being transferred to C-17s for the flight home invoked the realization that we as humans are probably the stupidest creatures roaming the earth and should be able to conduct ourselves more intelligently. I don’t know if anyone conveyed that to Saddam Hussien and I don’t know if the thought has occurred to anyone else after nine years.
It was an honor to be associated with extraordinary men and women for a few months of my flying career. Each of them a volunteer, with a rifle under their seat and a determination to be a part of something bigger than themselves. Watching them step off the airplane and into a war zone, and knowing some of their fathers and grandfathers had fought wars before them, made me wonder if history will continue to repeat its self.
Our country has produced some of the bravest and most courageous men in history and many of them are teenagers who wear desert camo and carry a rifle. They’re coming home and we should shake their hand, provide them with a job, and be grateful that we can enjoy our lives in safety because they did their duty.
This is the term currently used by academic soothsayers to explain why some pilots tend to doze off during a flight. The idea is that aircraft have become so automated and reliable, it is no longer necessary for the pilot to remain intensely engaged in the process. I think they called it something different when Lindberg dozed off during his solo across the Atlantic—probably blamed it on tension, brought on by lack of automation. Be that as it may, the Colgan crash in Buffalo and Air France 442 in mid-Atlantic, (both caused by stalling the aircraft and losing control) have called into question the basic flying skills of pilots who fly highly automated aircraft. The soothsayers opine that when the human has to take over and fly manually, the ability to recognize and recover from a stall is just no longer there. If that’s true, the solution would be to simply remove the automation and force pilots to always hand fly the airplane.
While I sometimes enjoy injecting sarcasm and barbs in my blogged opinions, I can’t completely disagree with the shrinks in this case. An airline pilot normally practices real stick and rudder skills only twice a year. Every six months, a proficiency check is required in the simulator and stalls, steep turns, terrain avoidance maneuvers, V1 cuts, and engine out approaches are performed to a tight training standard. The rest of the year your criteria is smoothness and if you fly long haul trips, 90% of your seat time is in straight and level flight. The simulator training is excellent, but number one, you’re in a simulator, and number two, you know what’s coming and you’re prepared for it. There is no excuse for not being proficient in the training maneuvers, but the point is, your job is to avoid stalls and steep turns in the airplane. Passengers tend to complain about such things.
Reading the shrink’s articles on the subject, it occurs to me that my stick and rudder skills were probably at their peak when I was a flight instructor in light airplanes. Almost every flight involved teaching or demonstrating training maneuvers and they were second nature. We didn’t need no stinkin automation. My first experience in airliners was flying copilot in DC-9s, B-727s, and DC-8s. Those airplanes had excellent autopilots, but did not feature LNAV or VNAV. We tracked VOR radials by use of the turn knob mode and made wind corrections the same way. The autopilot was capable of tracking a radial, but the wings waggled so much, no one used that mode. VOR frequencies were embedded in our brain and we used charts to stay ahead of the airplane. Believe me, you were fully engaged in navigating and a left-right course indicator along with a compass and a needle pointing at the station were your constant companions. There were actually two needles pointing at the station (two nav radios) and the unspoken competition was to try to split the needles when you crossed the station. If one needle spun to the left and one to the right, you had defeated the zone of confusion and passed directly over the station, even though you were four or five miles above it.
Some of the airplanes had auto-throttles, but they were erratic and no one used them either. Power settings were constantly monitored to maintain the proper speed and sync the engines. Climbs and descents were made by adjusting the vertical speed and moving the throttles and the point at which you began the descent was computed in your head. If you lost focus for even a brief time, the airplane would humiliate and embarrass you. My point in relating this trip down memory lane is that you were intimately involved with the machine all the time and skill, technique, and focus were points of professional pride. Now, the airplanes are almost totally automated and the only required manual flying is the takeoff. The only unspoken competition is how fast you can program a flight plan into the flight management system. It is easy to become complacent, while watching the computer fly the machine and do all the work (mental and physical). It takes self-discipline to force yourself to scan and monitor and stay intimately involved. Airline pilots, hired in the last few years, received their initial training in fully automated glass cockpits and will spend their entire career in that environment. What I considered valuable experience in DC-9s and DC-8s, they would deem a pain in the butt, however those habit patterns remain with me today and I believe that discipline wards off complacency. I could be wrong.
My conclusion is that there are two computers on an airliner. The company bought one of them from Boeing and hired the other one. One is contained in a black box and the other is between the ears of the guy they hired. One of them has to be programmed and the other has to be trained. I have to go now; I have my recurrent training with the shrink in lieu of practicing stalls.
There were several interesting aviation news stories this week to discuss. It was reported that a Boeing 737 made an off schedule landing due to a cracked windshield. This sounds like a potential disaster, but it is usually nothing more than a nuisance. The windshield of a typical airliner is made up of several laminated layers of plastic or sometimes heat tempered glass. The total thickness is approximately one and a quarter inches (1.25”). The problem (crack) usually occurs in the thin outer layer that is electrically heated for anti-ice and anti-bird-strike precautions. The heat is applied continuously and the windshield is never allowed to become cold and brittle. More often than not, the crack is caused by arcing of the heat sensors, and electrical fire is a much larger concern than the structural integrity of the windshield. The airplane can actually be dispatched with a cracked windshield if the circuit breakers are pulled and the pilot’s visibility is not restricted. The off schedule landing was probably due to electrical precautions. We’ve talked about smoke in the cockpit before.
Another story described the United Airlines pilots concerns about new company procedures that might cause them to land with the gear up. Evidently the company has revised the before landing checklist and the article stated that three incidents have been documented in which the landing gear warning horn sounded to remind the crew to put the wheels down. The article mentioned that the pilots union is in contract negotiations with United. This news story goes into the crowded category of SILLY . Come on guys, put the little wheels down and find a better negotiating tactic. You’re making us all look bad.
Last but not least there was the captain who took command of the lavatory and abdicated the more important throne in the cockpit. Finding himself locked in the john; he attracted the attention of a passenger and gave him the secret code to enter the cockpit to inform the copilot of his dilemma. This raised several questions in my mind.
Why not inform the flight attendant instead of a passenger?
Would the copilot also leave the flight deck in order to free the captain from the lav?
How tough could it be to break out of an aircraft lav?
What section of the procedures manual would the copilot refer to in order to deal with the problem?