Posted by: harrisonjones | March 13, 2012
Posted by: harrisonjones | February 17, 2012
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.
Posted by: harrisonjones | January 26, 2012
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?
Posted by: harrisonjones | December 17, 2011
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.
Posted by: harrisonjones | December 15, 2011
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.
Posted by: harrisonjones | November 19, 2011
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?
Okay, I know it’s not funny, but I’m laughing anyway. You do whatever you think is right. I found out that the airline’s procedure is, when the captain goes to the lav, the flight attendant has to go to the cockpit and hold the copilots hand. This makes more sense than the flight attendant going with the captain to hold his hand, but not much. Eventually, into every life some common sense must fall, and most intelligent humans don’t need a book procedure for every possibility. Least of all going to the bathroom. Reminds me of the infamous Captain Granny Gouch in the novel Shadow Flight. I can’t wait to see if the airline writes a new procedure. It would probably require multiple steps; number one either/or number two.
Oh well, the copilot declared a missing captain emergency and ATC called out the fighter jets, however the captain freed himself before the military escort arrived and all turned out well. At least sorta. My question is; would the flight attendant have stayed in the cockpit for landing? My God, what if someone whipped out a cell phone during taxi? It could have been a disaster. Would she get captain’s pay? I bet when it came time to put the wheels down, she wouldn’t be distracted by contract negotiations.
Posted by: harrisonjones | November 15, 2011
The department of transportation has fined American Eagle Airlines $900,000 for recent delays on the tarmac exceeding three hours. Didn’t I read somewhere that the airlines have been deregulated? Are the fines a deterrent to delays or a revenue enhancement for the government? I doubt very seriously if any airline purposely plans to have one of its airplanes sitting on the ground for three hours. Airborne utilization is the only way an airplane can be profitable and most airlines probably need that number to be at least 10 hours a day to stay in business.
When an airplane is delayed, it not only loses money on that particular flight, but also on the next flight it was scheduled to fly. The delay dominoes throughout the entire schedule and increases cost at every level in addition to destroying customer service. Does Ray LaHood at DOT think that is the airline’s plan? Far be it from me to make excuses for airline management or their customer service record, however my criticism is of their policies on a normal day. When a nor’easter blows in and de-icing is in progress and ATC increases spacing to ten miles in trail or worse yet the weather is below landing minimums, I have to cut them a little slack.
Let’s face the fact that they have to land every flight or else let it run out of fuel and crash. Given the choice… With all the extra flights on the ground, there simply are not enough gates to park them. Someone is going to be odd man out and stranded on the ramp. The airline has no control over ATC and weather delays and they have no control over the number of gates at a given airport. If our friend Ray has a solution, it would be a good time to share it with the industry. Perhaps he could run down to JFK approach control and enlighten them on how to run the system more efficiently. Or possibly he could influence the airport authority in Hartford to build more gates. Here’s an idea; deregulate somebody and then impose some new regulations along with hefty fines for not complying.
I’m sure Mr. LaHood is feeling some pressure from irate airline passengers and the voters who employ his boss, but if he thinks that’s uncomfortable, he should go sit at a radar scope for a couple of hours during a snow storm or perch himself in the left seat of an airliner with 300 people following him around. Imposing a $900,000 fine might ease the pressure at DOT, but it’s not a life or death decision.
Posted by: harrisonjones | October 31, 2011
Okay, you are the captain. Your flight is scheduled to depart sunny Ft. Lauderdale, bound for Newark. The forecast calls for snow in the northeast. The company flight plan reveals that you have trip fuel, plus 45 minutes holding fuel, plus fuel to the alternate (Philadelphia), plus a thirty minute reserve. Is that enough? You’re the captain. Oh, you say you want another thirty minutes of reserve? The company dispatcher relents and orders up the extra kerosene. You have 130 passengers. Are you still within weight limits for takeoff and landing? The computer spits out a new weight data sheet showing the added fuel is not a problem. Check the weather one last time before heading out to the airplane. Newark is reporting 100 overcast with visibility at 2400 RVR in blowing snow and winds out of the northeast at 20 knots. Ceiling is not a criteria for landing minimums and you’re good down to 1200 RVR visibility with a max crosswind of 10 knots. Runway 4 L/R is well within limits. No more whining; are you going or not? Okay then, haul your suitcase and flight kit up to the airplane and act like you know what you’re doing.
The preflight is done and everything is working, including the copilot, Fred, who trusts your decision. Susie, the flight attendant wants to know if it’s okay to board the passengers. This is not your first Rodeo and you tell her to sit on the jump seat while Fred gets the clearance. ATC reels off the clearance at 200 words per minute and Fred reads it back perfectly. ATC responds, “Read back correct, sir, you have a wheels up time of 1800.” Quickly converting to local time, you determine that there will be a 90 minute delay. Susie asks when she should board. You’re the captain. The wheels up time could be revised earlier or later. Oh, you’re going to split the difference and board 45 minutes before scheduled wheels up? Okaaaaay.
How are you holding up so far? You’re number five for departure with both engines running when ground control informs you that the wheels up time is now extended until 1845. You are instructed to pull into the run up pad at the end of the runway and wait. You want to go back to the gate and replace the fuel you’re going to be burning for the next hour? You have the authority to do that, but it will require a new dispatch and a new clearance. Oh, you’re going to run the auxiliary power unit and shut down the engines to save fuel. Okaaaay…talk to the passengers…give them the bad news. Susie hates you now.
Wheels up time comes 15 minutes early. ATC wants to know how soon you will be ready. Three minutes… four max…start the engines…tell Susie to prepare the cabin. You’re number one and everybody is waiting on you. Position and hold. Ten airplanes behind you. Checklist complete…waiting on the cabin. Susie… “Cleared for takeoff.” Susie… “Uh… standby one tower.”
“Sir, I need you to roll or clear the runway.” You’re the captain.
Susie rings, “The cabin’s ready.” Release the brakes, takeoff power, 80 knots, V1, VR, V2. Positive rate. Gear up. Contact departure. “See ya.”
You’re cruising…drinking coffee…telling jokes over Virgina. Washington Center calls, “You’re cleared to the Tar River VOR, hold southwest, expect further clearance at 43 past the hour.” That’s 35 minutes from now. You ask how many airplanes are ahead of you. “You’ll have to ask New York center when you get there, sir. Looks like 18 in my airspace.” You now have ten minutes of hold fuel left and you’re not talking to New York yet. You’re the captain. Oh, you want to check the Philadelphia weather. Fred calls company and gets the weather for Philly along with the news that there are 39 airplanes holding for Philadelphia International. You calculate 3 minutes for each airplane in the stack and come up with two hours. Talk to me, captain. Oh, you want to know what else is available. Company suggest Hartford. The weather is above minimums and there is very little delay. You can get there with 45 minutes of fuel left. You can do a couple of more twenty mile turns around the holding pattern while you decide. The copilot says, “I don’t want to put any pressure on you, boss, but I’ve got a wife and two kids.” Oh, you want a clearance to Hartford? Okaaay.
New York center gives you a descent for Hartford and adds that you should expect holding from approach control. How long? Don’t know, approach will give you instructions. Fred asks if you want to declare an emergency or at least min fuel. You’re the captain. Oh, you want to wait and talk to approach. There’s a lot of paperwork if you declare. Fred says, “There’s even more paperwork for a funeral.” He just finished the CRM short course. Approach says to expect one turn in holding. No problem, runway in sight.
You clear the runway with 40 minutes of fuel in the tanks. Ground control directs you to a remote pad for parking and you note 8 other airplanes already there and accumulating snow on the wings and fuselage. You set the parking brake and Fred shuts the engines down. You hope the APU will provide enough heat for the cabin. You pick up the PA for the tenth time today, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the captain…again…”
Susie stopped speaking to you about two hours ago, but the number three flight attendant is new and feels sorry for you so she honors your request for coffee. Three hours later, when all the food and beverages are gone and the toilets have run out of flush water, the number three stops speaking to you also. All your request for a gate, or for fuel have been ignored and the airplane now looks like a pop cycle covered in a foot of ice and snow.
That brings us to this morning’s newspaper articles about passengers stranded on the tarmac. For what it’s worth, tarmac is a paving substance that was invented in 1901 and declared unfit by Orville and Wilbur. Any reporter that uses the words Boeing and tarmac in the same article is highly suspect and deeply discounted by yours truly. See ya, captain.
Posted by: harrisonjones | October 21, 2011
The answer is, “Yes you do.” If you answer otherwise, then you are obviously apathetic which is a human emotion and negates your negative reply. If my pointing this out makes you angry, disgusted, afraid, happy, sad, or surprised, then I have accomplished what all writers strive to achieve. I have evoked an emotion in the reader. My fervent hope is that you will not be angry or disgusted with me, but rather with one of my fictitious characters. And in the course of spinning my tale, if I can change your anger or disgust for that same character to affection or empathy, then I feel pride which is another human emotion.
We generally don’t take the time to categorize and catalog each of the emotions that we experience during a normal day, and I know you’re thinking, “Whatever…” See, there’s that apathy thing again and it probably made you yawn. Oh my…did you just yawn? Did I evoke you to do that? I might have a future in this business. On the other hand, apathy and yawning are not exactly what I hope you experience while reading my novels.
Normally, there are two elements that have to be developed in a novel. One is the plot and the other is the characters. In my own reading, I seldom get emotional about the plot other than maybe curiosity or a little confusion. If mystery is involved, I will either figure it out myself or if my intellect fails me, the author will reveal all at some point. Either way, the plot becomes finite. It begins and it ends. The characters, however, will live on long after the story ends. If the characters are well developed, I will feel what they feel. I will love, hate, fear, feel happiness, sadness, surprise, (no apathy please) as they do. I will think of them as friends or enemies after I’ve turned the last page and I will miss being involved with them.
My philosophical musings here are for my own benefit to remind me what I’m supposed to be doing as I develop my next novel. I’m getting to know the characters and I hope to introduce them to you soon. What about the plot? Knowing the characters like I do, they would be upset if I revealed the plot before they have their input. Meanwhile, hone your intellect and your emotions.
Posted by: harrisonjones | October 12, 2011