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.
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.
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.
Congress has discovered that being on the no fly list doesn’t preclude an individual from obtaining a pilot’s license. Can new legislation be far behind? The new law might read something like, “No individual with ill intentions shall receive flight training or be permitted to obtain a pilot’s license.” Of course penalties and punishment for flight schools who accept students with ill intentions will have to be spelled out in detail also. New TSA and FAA personnel will have to be brought on board to enforce the legislation and new departmental policy will be established as guidelines. A budget outlay of around one billion should cover the cost. Once the new law is in effect, we can all breathe a huge sigh of relief and relax. We will be able to sleep at night knowing all is well.
Perhaps we should think this through in anticipation of the new learning environment. When the TSA screening agents show up at the FBO, students and instructors will be required to remove their shoes for a toe count before boarding the aircraft and of course the water bottle you use for hydration during the flight will be restricted to only three ounces. No problem for sly and enterprising flight schools; flip flops will be included as an option for suitable attire and pre-hydration will become an item on the pre-flight checklist.
My confidence in the process is bolstered by the fact that robbing gas stations is illegal also, and we’ve experienced a three percent decrease in such crimes over the last ten years. That success might be altered if the terrorists who are dissuaded from learning to fly resort to robbing gas stations instead.
Let’s be realistic for a moment. Someone with ill intentions, who wants to learn to fly, might not be on the no fly list. Such a person is not even interested in obtaining a license. Their objective is to simply learn how to takeoff and steer the airplane. Safety and regulations are not an issue. Neither is legislation. There are thousands of flight schools to apply to and the odds are one will accept their money. If not, there are thousands of independent flight instructors to appeal to. Does everyone run a background check on every student, and would a routine background check reveal ill intentions? For that matter, do you have to be a flight instructor to teach someone to takeoff and steer the airplane. My conclusion is that the character, integrity, and judgment of flight instructors have never been more important when evaluating a student. I’ll leave all the possible scenarios to your imagination along with a plug for my novel, SHADOW FLIGHT, which examines the possibilities.
Let’s legislate ourselves into euphoria!
One of the sub-plots in my new novel will be about a new-hire pilot as he begins his career with an airline. A typical airline pilot will occupy many different cockpit seats during his career and is motivated to do so in order to increase his pay. A new hire pilot will begin his career in the lowest paying seat on the airline and then advance as his or her seniority allows. If the airline operates older aircraft that require a three man crew (DC-8, L-1011, B-727, and older B-747) the new guy will be trained as a second officer and perform the duties of flight engineer. He may not actually touch the flight controls for several years.
As older pilots die or retire, the new guy will be able to move up to larger, higher paying aircraft and eventually be eligible to advance to first officer and perform as a co-pilot. The ultimate goal, of course, is to become a captain. This is why younger pilots on the seniority list have been known to encourage captains to buy motorcycles and take up sky-diving. Each time a pilot changes seats, a visit to the training department is required in order to qualify for the new position. A typical transition course involves two weeks of ground school, followed by a week in the simulator. My purpose here is to offer insight into that process.
The majority of the time in ground school is used to teach the details of aircraft systems. Sounds simple, but it’s not. The aircraft manual is thick and every page is covered. The chapters include; Aircraft General, Air Conditioning and Pressurization, Auto flight, Auxiliary Power Unit, Communications and Radar, Electrical, Emergency Equipment, Fire Protection, Flight Controls, Fuel, Flight Instruments, Hydraulics, Ice and Rain Protection, Landing Gear, Oxygen, Pneumatics, Engines, and Warning Systems.
I just listed 18 systems and the ground school instructor has 9 days to teach with the tenth day reserved for testing. You begin to sense some amount of urgency and airlines abhor training costs, though they would adamantly deny that. The student is not only expected to know the components of each system and how they operate, along with each control and indicator, but also the normal, abnormal, and emergency procedures. Some procedures must be memorized and performed without referring to a checklist. System limitations must also be committed to memory and regurgitated verbally during testing.
In addition to systems, the transition class is also taught the company’s Op Specs (Operation Specifications) for the aircraft. These are special rules that the FAA approves to allow (among many other things) the carrier to operate below standard minima for approach and landing. For instance, basic jet minimums for approach are a ceiling of 200 feet and visibility of ¾ mile. Airlines with Op Specs allowing Category IIIA approaches are permitted to land with zero-zero conditions. Let’s move on, I’m getting a headache. The class will also be taught ditching and evacuation procedures and attend a security class.
At the end of the two weeks, the class takes a comprehensive written exam and then will be introduced to a representative of the Friendly Aviation Administration in order to take an oral exam. This usually takes about two hours and the inspector will expect a recitation of all the required memory items of the emergency checklist along with the regurgitation of the chapter on aircraft limitations. After jumping that hurdle, he will proceed to ask questions about every switch and light in the cockpit followed by, “What would you do if…?”
After successfully completing the ground school, a deep breath is allowed before moving on to a week in the simulator where the real fun begins. That’s a blog for another day. I’ll conclude with a fact that the traveling public is not aware of. Major airlines no longer conduct training flights for pilots. The rating ride is taken in the simulator and the first time your butt sits in the new seat you have trained for (maybe the first time you’ve ever entered this particular type of aircraft), there will be paying passengers sitting behind you enjoying the thrill along with you. There’s no extra charge for the exciting debut performance. I hasten to add that your first few landings will be with a line check captain in the other seat to see that your transition is smooth.
This is just a broad view of how pilots move through the ranks as seniority and experience increases. Training is an ongoing process throughout the career and a never ending challenge. You just hope that if the music stops, you have a seat to occupy.
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