Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Debris Found from AirAsia 8501

Floating debris has been found near the site of where the aircraft was last seen on radar. The water has been reported as a relatively shallow 10-30 meters which should aid in the recovery of the flight recorders.

Recovery of the flight data recorder should give a comprehensive picture of what happened to the aircraft and whether the problem was weather related. Reports also describe the debris field as relatively tight possibly indicating the aircraft was intact on impact as opposed to an inflight breakup.

Monday, December 29, 2014

AirAsia 8501

AirAsia 8501, an Airbus A320 aircraft with 162 souls on board disappeared Sunday morning over the Java Sea while enroute from the Indonesian city of Surabaya to Singapore in heavy weather. As of yet there has been no wreckage found nor any signals from the aircraft's emergency locator beacon. The last transmission from the aircraft was a request for a left course deviation and a climb from 32,000 feet to 38,000 feet with weather avoidance given as the reason.

The climb request was denied by air traffic control due to traffic conflicts. There were heavy thunderstorms in the area which are normally associated with the tropical weather in the region. Radar contact was lost with the aircraft several minutes after the denied request.

While it is too early and not enough is known about the fate of the aircraft, a few clarifications about flight near thunderstorms may be helpful.

Don't Mess with Mother Nature

Thunderstorms are dangerous things and can grow to heights above which all commercial planes are unable to climb. Flight through a thunderstorm is also extremely hazardous as the gusts, rain, and turbulence inside can easily bring down any aircraft flying today, including fighters. You simply do not penetrate a thunderstorm.

It may then seem unconscionable that air traffic control (ATC) denied the climb request. What must be remembered though is that the function of air traffic control is not weather avoidance but rather traffic separation. Weather avoidance is the primary duty of the pilot. Most ATC radars are not even equipped to show weather data.

Should a situation arise where a turn away from a large cell needs to be made immediately and ATC denies the request, pilots always retain what is called emergency authority to keep their aircraft free of hazards. In such a case, turning the aircraft away from a storm is always the safest course and should be done while advising ATC of your actions.

The best course of action is to plan your weather avoidance actions as early as possible. Airborne radar has a useable range out to several hundred miles to search for holes in the weather. Should there be no apparent safe passage through the weather, a turnback or diversion to another airport is always possible. As I said earlier, you don't fool around with thunderstorms.

Springtime and summer are the worst seasons for thunderstorms in North America and at times I've seen solid lines of storms stretching from Texas to the Great Lakes. Flying around these storms can take you hundreds of miles off course, even into Mexico or Canada to avoid them.

Stay Out of the Shadows

One of the shortfalls of airborne radar is that it can't see "through" especially thick storms to let you know what is on the other side. The danger is flying towards what you believe is a "hole" in a line of weather only to find a larger cell behind the first one that wasn't apparent. The area behind a thick cell might look clear but isn't. For this reason, pilots are warned to never fly into or towards a radar "shadow" or area behind a strong return.

Modern digital radars now display warning icons on the screen when a shadow is apparent but in the recent past the antenna had to be pointed at the ground to discern shadows. If there were no "ground returns" or reflections from the ground behind the cell, you knew it was a shadow.

Life Inside a Storm

Ok, so what happens if you really screw up and end up inside a thunderstorm? Nothing good. For starters, the ride is going to be really rough. The severe turbulence found inside a thunderstorm means that everything that is not locked, bolted or strapped down is going to fly. This includes carts, lap children and most likely all the luggage in the overhead bins as the doors will pop open. So there will be injuries and chaos.

The structure of the aircraft may also be in peril. A simple rudder reversal on an Airbus taking off from JFK back in 2001 caused the whole vertical stabilizer (tail) to break off. Forces inside a thunderstorm will be stronger and may cause engines to depart the wing and wings to depart the aircraft. Never good.

But let's assume the engines and wings stay on the aircraft. The next danger is the huge amount of rain that the engines will swallow. Jet engines have a fire burning in the hot section and if enough water gets poured into the engine, the fire will be put out. We call this a flameout. And like trying to restart a campfire in the rain, it won't easily relight.

So now you're a glider in severe turbulence looking for a place to land in heavy rain and wind with limited instruments. This situation is generally one pilots wish to avoid so we are well incentivized to stay out of thunderstorms.

So What Happened?

Getting back to the fate of AirAsia 8501, the Java Sea where the aircraft was last seen on radar is nowhere as large an area as the Indian Ocean where the Malaysian 777 disappeared. Also, the aircraft was in radar contact which really narrows the potential search area.

So while weather may have played a part in the disappearance, it is just too early to know.

As it happens, I've flown on AirAsia. I put my family on an AirAsia flight from Bangkok to Phuket on a vacation a few years back. I found the airline to be modern, professional and a delightful experience.

While our prayers go out to the families who have loved ones on the aircraft, we hope to know more in the near future.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

A Bad Day at Work

As I mentioned in a recent post, an old pilot saying cautions that it's better to die than to look bad. What you see here comes under the heading of looking bad. Hit another airplane while taxiing and you are probably set up for one of the worst days of your professional career. And most of the pain will be self inflicted.

Of course there will be pain inflicted by your chief pilot, your crew and passengers and probably also the FAA, but you will be the one leading the charge to your own auto-da-fé. For in the piloting world, there is simply no excuse for taxiing your airplane into another solid object. And you know this.

I still recall a flight instructor from my distant past making the point that there is really no such thing as a taxi accident. There are only "taxi-on-purposes" for while you are on the ground, you really only have one job: don't hit anything. And stay on the pavement. Okay, two.

And there are lots of things out there that are going to try to get in your way. There are baggage carts, tugs, provisioning trucks, jetways, and of course other airplanes. Most tug drivers are reincarnated kamikaze pilots as they will gladly cut in front of a taxiing airliner with hardly a glance.

Some things such as light poles aren't even trying to get in your way but occasionally make you aware of their presence. One was recently clipped off in Denver, but one of the more memorable events I recall was an encounter between a C-5 military transport and a misplaced light pole on a new taxiway in Oklahoma.

Yes you read that correctly. The contractor who painted the lines on the taxiway was different than the contractor who installed the lighting, and neglected to measure the distance between the centerline of the taxiway and the pole. The first poor schmuck to taxi into the area, while solidly on centerline where he was supposed to be, hit the pole. The pilot of course was blamed and summarily shot.

I myself recently had a close encounter while parking a jet. As you pull up to the parking spot, you will see the jetway pass by your left field of view but you must watch and obey the marshaller, the guy with the wands. This particular time, I noticed the jetway go past but he kept motioning me forward. It turns out he was parking me on a painted spot designated for a larger airplane. Had I kept going forward, my left engine would have contacted the jetway. Luckily I stopped before we bent any metal. Trust no one.

Another good one was when an AWACS aircraft, a Boeing 707, was found to have some damage on its wingtip upon return from an overseas deployment. A worldwide search finally found some matching damage on a hangar at Yokota AB outside Tokyo.

A buddy of mine back in the 312th Airlift Squadron had an even closer encounter while taxiing his C-5 out of parking on Okinawa. In what might be described as either extraordinarily good or bad luck, his wingtip just barely grazed the nose of another parked C-5 resulting in only a paint transfer. That was some fancy driving. He was let off lightly with only the loss of one or two fingers as punishment.

It's Not That Hard

You may now be thinking that pilots are either extremely careless or that taxiing is harder than it looks. While neither of these is particularly true, taxiing is one of those human endeavors which while deceptively easy, can brook no error. None.

Think of it like parallel parking where there can be absolutely no contact between your car and other cars nor can your tires hit the curb. There will be a point where you think you're probably ok but not really sure so you back another inch and feel the slight lurch as your bumper hits the car behind. You could've gotten out of the car to walk back and look but you didn't.

That is the temptation when your wing looks really close to something but you can't really tell. The problem is there are no bumpers or curb feelers on airplanes. Any contact means probably tens of thousands of dollars of repairs, cancelled flights and headaches.

Unless your wing is obviously clear of other objects, it isn't. Humans are just bad judges of distance between two far objects. And while other pilots may wish to take chances while passing, you'll want to protect yourself from the careless. I learned this lesson on one of my very first trips as a captain.

A Close Encounter

Way back in the mists of time, a very young and green captain operating one of his first left seat trips from San Francisco to Phoenix happened to have an older and wisened pilot in his jumpseat. This fellow was an American but was flying for an overseas airline at the time. Upon landing in Phoenix, we were taxiing into our gate when there appeared a plane heading the opposite direction.

That plane had been given instructions to wait for us to turn into our gate and then to pass behind us to the outer taxiway. This guy however didn't want to wait and kept coming hoping to squeeze around us. It was at this point I heard my jumpseater say, "Captain, set your brake."

I did.

The other plane passed uneventfully, though how close was anyone's guess. My guest explained that had he hit us, there would be no question as to who had hit whom as the flight data recorder would show my parking brake as set. It's a lesson I've never forgotten.

Friday, December 19, 2014

This Job Can Kill You!

Elsewhere in the news this week I found an article in the Telegraph which breathlessly states that about an hour in a cockpit at altitude will expose a pilot to the equivalent UV radiation he would get from lying on a tanning bed for 20 minutes.

So here's to tanning. It didn't seem to hurt George Hamilton's career much and the ladies seem to like the look, so there's that.

Well there's always something that's going to kill you, isn't there? If it's not melanoma from sun exposure, it'll probably be some other exotic cancer which will be the result of increased radiation experienced in the upper reaches of the atmosphere where there's less protection. Or perhaps years of breathing the ozone prevalent in the stratosphere will take you out. I thought that stuff was going away, though.

I've always thought that my largest risks for extinction came from a combination of driving to the airport, walking to my crash pad in the hood, or most likely decades of eating airport and hotel food. I'm well into the heart attack years and several times a year I hear about some poor schmuck at the airline waking up dead from a bad ticker. One guy recently went out in his commuter hotel in the ghetto, poor bastard.

It's almost enough to make one want to drive over to the gym. Luckily, cooler heads usually prevail.

I operate on the theory that God only issues so many heartbeats, and only a fool would run through them more quickly than necessary. The joke goes that I want to go out like old Joe, peacefully asleep and not screaming in panic like his passengers.

If by now you've noticed a certain macabre insouciance in this essay, that's because it's intentionally there. It also was a great opportunity to use the word insouciance which doesn't happen every day. Who said the French never gave us anything but stinky cheese?

Better to Die than to Look Bad

The piloting profession can kill you and not just through the deleterious effects of the lifestyle. I've personally known perhaps four pilots who have died in airplane crashes over the years, both military and civilian. It's accepted as an occupational hazard.

It's also the source of much of the romance and lore that surrounds aviation. The enduring image of the intrepid aviator sporting oil spattered goggles, leather helmet and silk scarf (used to wipe the goggles) flying off in his Sopwith Camel to do battle with the Hun was more than just the inspiration for Snoopy comics. There was a very real and good chance that he wasn't coming back.

Pilots are proud and supposed to be unflappable under pressure. Displaying a lack of composure to other pilots in particular is always to be avoided. One old aphorism from the fighter world advises that it's better to die than to sound bad on the radio.

And it's not that pilot's don't get scared. They do. Letting it take control though is the most unforgivable of sins. Viet Nam F-4 pilots would start their day with the routine of "Get up, throw up, go up" and they weren't throwing up because the food was bad.

The cocky bravado found just under the surface of all pilots is part defense mechanism but also part of a necessary self confidence. For when the poop really hits the prop, which still happens with routine regularity, no one is going to save your little pink backside except you. You're on your own.

Airplane catch on fire? Get it down now or die. Lose pressurization? You've got six seconds to get the mask on or it's nap time. For everybody. Even one of the newest most magnificent super jumbo Airbus A380s nearly fell apart recently almost killing 440 passengers and 29 crew. Skillful piloting and good decisions saved the day.

I'm always amused when passengers getting off the airplane call up to the cockpit and shout "thanks for the safe flight" or something similar. As if they weren't on the airplane I'd have been much more careless. Here's a little secret: I fly with care primarily to keep myself safely away from the deadly embrace of terra firma, at least until it's time to land. But also to stay out of the chief pilot's office.

We make jokes about the guys who "bought the farm". Even the bar at Randolph AFB where I went through pilot instructor training was named the "Augur Inn", a reference to crashing. Somewhere in the pilot psych, survivors subconsciously believe that they've lasted this long because they were doing it right, and the guys that didn't, weren't. This is sometimes silly because some crashes are completely out of the control of the pilots.

This bothers us. We don't like to believe that we are the subject of a random fate over which we have no control. Fate can cause bad things to happen, but through strength of will, expertise and yes, luck we hope to prevail. I'm borrowing a riff here from Ernest Gann's Fate is the Hunter, one of the best books ever written about flying. The thrill is in the hunt itself.

But in the end something is going to get you, and who wants to look at an untanned corpse at the viewing?

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Would You Get on a Plane With No Pilots?

Or how about one with only one pilot? Sooner or later, you may not have the choice. In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, (subscription required) it was revealed that NASA has commissioned a study to be conducted by Rockwell Collins to explore the feasibility of single pilot airliners:

Facing potential shortages of airline pilots and dramatic advances in automation, industry and government researchers have begun the most serious look yet at the idea of enabling jetliners to be flown by a single pilot. 
All large commercial jets for passenger and cargo service world-wide now fly with at least two pilots in the cockpit. A new study by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and Rockwell Collins Inc. will focus on the provocative idea that co-pilots could remain on the ground, remotely assisting solo aviators on the flight deck during the busiest parts of flights, said John Borghese, Rockwell’s vice president of its Advanced Technology Center.

Actually, it wouldn't be quite fair to call the remaining human being on a single place airliner a pilot at all, for his required skill set would almost certainly not include the "stick and rudder" skills of today's pilots. The remaining person would be a systems manager, overseeing the computers which would do the actual flying.

There are actually very good reasons why you would not want a very bored and very rusty pilot just sitting up in the cockpit waiting for something to go wrong so he could grab the controls to save the day.

For starters, humans are uniquely unqualified and unsuited to sit around to watch and monitor machines. Most humans have an attention span of perhaps 20 minutes before the mind starts to wander. This type of arrangement is quite nearly the reverse of the ideal human-machine interface.

If you'd like to try this out for yourself, simply sit in the laundry room and watch your clothes washer closely to make sure it doesn't skip a cycle. It's not likely to happen, but if it does and you miss it, you and all your passengers die. No falling asleep! (Washers are probably slightly more reliable than current aircraft automation, but the analogy holds.)

Secondly, piloting, or "stick and rudder" skills take years to acquire and need to be maintained with routine practice. Neither of these conditions will be available in the cockpits of the future. Heck, they are hardly even available today! We are currently coasting on a slowly draining reservoir of pilot skills attained in the years before automation became pervasive.

Children of the Magenta Line

Pilots entering the profession today get rudimentary training before graduating to their first commuter airline job which will be in a glass cockpit with automation. These "children of the magenta line" (a reference to the electronic magenta line on the course display) will never develop the piloting skills their forbears recognized as their stock and trade.

This concept of in-flight computer system operators was demonstrated succinctly last year by the crash in San Francisco of an Asiana 777 on a clear and calm day. The "pilots" aboard that aircraft had many thousands of hours of flight time safely operating jumbo aircraft across the ocean with many hundreds of passengers. Unfortunately, they didn't know how to actually "fly" the plane when they needed to and they'd been doing it that way for years.

The big mistake made by the managers at Asiana was of getting ahead of the current state of the art. The automation deployed on the current generation of commercial aircraft is good, but it was never designed to be all encompassing. That is, on occasion a pilot may actually still be needed to fly the airplane the way the Wright brothers did.

Crossing the Bridge Safely

Now please don't misunderstand me. I am no Luddite arguing against the eventual denouement of my profession. The piloting profession as it been constituted since Kitty Hawk is in decline and no amount of feather-bedding will change that. And this is most likely a good thing.

Commercial air travel is now safer than it has ever been and has levels of safety which are probably rivalled only by the elevator. Automation has played a large part in this. But like the elevator, the nature of commercial aviation is going to change and drastically so.

The question is not where the profession is headed, but rather how to safely get there. As automation becomes more robust, the need for piloting skills will diminish on a gradual level. The challenge will be how to bridge this ebbing of piloting skills with the gradual increase in the capabilities of automation until such time that pilots are not needed nor desired. 

The proposed study by Rockwell Collins is much less ambitious in its objectives seeking only to explore the feasibility of single pilot operations while a second pilot would be at the ready on the ground to assist if needed:

Under the concept the researchers are studying, aviators on the ground could be assigned to assist solo cockpit pilots on multiple flights, virtually co-piloting during the busiest times through crowded airspace, approach-and-landing maneuvers, or if something goes wrong. “It’s a reasonably new area” to study how the notion may apply to large jets, according to Parimal Kopardekar, the program’s manager based at NASA’s Ames Research Center in northern California. When pilots need a midair rest or bathroom break, those on the ground even may “need to baby-sit the vehicle,” he said. 
Such a dramatic shift won’t happen any time soon, and there is virtual consensus that reduced crews for passenger planes won’t be considered until they are introduced first in the cargo arena. That is unlikely to gain traction much before the end of the next decade, according to experts and airline officials. 
Jets today are designed to have two pilots behind the controls, and retrofitting existing aircraft “may be too expensive and may be too difficult” to obtain regulatory approval, according to NASA’s Mr. Kopardekar. Industry officials say all-new aircraft would be needed with cockpits designed from the start with a single pilot in mind.

It is an open secret that Fred Smith, FedEx founder and CEO has at the top of his bucket list the firing of at least half, if not all his pilots. And there is little doubt that the first single piloted commercial aircraft will be a freighter. Other than that, it is highly unlikely that there will be any single piloted commercial aircraft for at least the next few decades.

Boeing's latest generation technology, the 787 Dreamliner and the forthcoming 737 Max aircraft have all been designed for two pilots as have the latest offerings from Airbus. Given the average technology cycle of about 20 years between major upgrades, only the aircraft introduced to replace these new generation aircraft are likely to be designed for single pilot operations. So while the change may take a few decades, most experts view it as inevitable.

Also necessary for this change will be a wholesale cultural shift in public opinion towards automation. This shift is already underway. A century ago, it might have been unthinkable for any man on the street to consider getting on a train that didn't have an engineer. Now we routinely board completely automated trains taking us to our airline gates.

Likewise, luxury cars are already coming equipped with automatic lane-keeping alert and sudden stop warning systems. Google's driverless cars are already combing the countryside, recording all they see for Google maps. When cars which can parallel park themselves become ubiquitous, a skill many drivers never master, highly automated aircraft overseen by a systems engineer will not seem so far fetched.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

The Aviation Adventures of Flat Mae

Checking which gate we're going to!

Hi there. My name is Flat Mae, and I'm a two dimensional projection of a REAL seven year old girl. I look just like her. Well almost. She's actually a bit bigger but I'm just as smart. Real Mae has to go to school, but I get to go everywhere!

As it turns out, I have an auntie and uncle who are real live airline pilots! My auntie flies for Gigantor Consolidated Airways and took me on a trip to Germany last week on a 777. Gosh, that's a BIG plane. That was a lot of fun.

This week my uncle who works for Air Eponymous Airlines, took me along for his trip all around the states. Boy, that was a lot of fun too! Here's how my trip with my uncle went!

Well first of all, we had a really good deal and didn't have to fly up to Chicago Sunday night to stay in his stinky old crash pad. That's because his trip had a late morning start and he got to sleep at home and fly up Monday morning in time to check in. It's the little things that count he said.

Well we flew up and checked in and then walked over to our gate. My but Chicago has a big airport and even has another one that's even bigger! They even have an airplane inside the airport which seems really weird. The sign says they found it at the bottom of a lake or something.

Walking to our gate

Today we're flying two flights to Orange County after first stopping in Denver. I do so love oranges. This is going to be great!

We get to our gate and there's no airplane! My uncle says it's ok because it hasn't arrived yet and we're early. I hope he's right because I am so excited!

It eventually shows up and we get started on all our preflight checks. We meet our copilot whose name is Chris. He seems nice. There sure are a lot of buttons up there. I hope they know what they all do!

The takeoff was the most fun ever. We got going really fast and then just wooshed up into the air! All the houses got really small and I could even see cars driving around on the street and people walking around from way up high. We eventually go so high that I couldn't see any people any more. The next thing I know, we're inside a CLOUD! They're all white inside, just like the outside.

It was fun looking out the window. You can see everything. I waved at all the other airplanes going by but they went so fast I don't think they saw me.

We landed in Denver but they unloaded and loaded the plane so fast we didn't even have a chance to get off! And then just like that we're taking off again to Orange County.

Well we landed in Orange County and there were more pilots there waiting to take our airplane somewhere else. Bye, plane!

Now we have to wait for the hotel van to pick us up. The hotel is very nice and we have our own room. We meet Chris for dinner and order the seared ahi salad for dinner with a nice glass of Merlot. Yuck. Who can drink that stuff?

After dinner we relax a little bit and then it's time to brush our teeth, set two alarms and hit the sack. This part is a little bit tricky. The schedule that we printed out says our flight leaves at 0915 tomorrow morning but that is in central time zone. That makes it 0715 here in California. Our van time is an hour before that and we have to get up an hour before van time. I have to wash my hair and put on makeup. Just kidding...I don't wear makeup, silly.  So that makes the alarm time 0515. Ughh!

The alarm comes way too early! We get ready and head down to the lobby.

The kitchen hasn't opened yet but they do have some yummy muffins for us. I like this hotel. They have neat model ships everywhere and a Christmas tree in the lobby.

Well we get to the airplane and my uncle tells me I have to do the walkaround today. He tells me that we have to inspect the airplane to make sure it will fly. I sure hope it does fly.

We look at the engines and the tires. They look ok to me. I guess.

Next we have to go into the wheel well. It's very dirty in there. I don't think I'd like to have to do that every day.

My uncle says I'd only have to do it for about 12 years. I'm only seven. That's forever!

Ok, we got that done and get started. We're flying back to Denver today but it's supposed to be bumpy. My uncle says that there are mountain waves we have to cross. I don't know if I like the sound of that but he tells me it'll be fine.

Well, it's not fine. It's not fine at all. It's great! We go up and then we go down and then we go up again. This is fun!

My uncle doesn't look like he's having fun. He keeps talking to a man on the radio and the stewardesses in the back telling them to sit down. The wings look like they're flapping like a bird's. No one wants to have fun anymore.

We land back in Denver and this time we get to stay for a little while. We have to give this plane to other pilots and wait a few hours. I hope there's something good to eat here. The muffin wasn't much.

Denver is a really big airport and they even have a plane inside here too.

I'm beginning to see a pattern.

We hang out in the pilot lounge for a little while and watch some TV. Then we go and get a bowl of chile. It's six bucks. That's crazy!

My uncle spends time on the telephone talking to a car mechanic back where he lives. He says my cousins are too rough on their car and now it needs brakes. And a timing belt. And a power steering pump. And new motor mounts. He doesn't seem happy.

Soon enough we have to go to a new gate and get a new plane. I don't have to go into that nasty wheel well but he lets me drive the pushback tug.

That is tons of fun and I didn't even hit any other airplanes!

Ok, we're off. This time to Detroit.

By the time we get to Detroit, it's dark. And a lot colder than California. Lucky for us the hotel van comes right away. This hotel is not as nice as the one in California but it's still ok. 

We meet Chris for dinner and have the open face turkey sandwich. My uncle has been really wanting a turkey sandwich since all the ones from Thanksgiving were accidentally left on Grandma's kitchen table when he drove home. It's yummy.

After trying to read but falling asleep we set two alarms again only this time it's even earlier. Our schedule says we leave at 0505 which means we should get up at 0305. That's three in the morning! But it's still tricky as Detroit is in eastern time so we set the alarm for 0405.

The kitchen is also closed here when we leave the hotel but they have a bag with a pastry and an apple for us. It's still dark when we get up and even still dark when we take off, this time for Baltimore. The sun doesn't even begin to rise until we start to descend.

It's pretty when it starts to come up though.

We only had 40 people on the first leg but now in Baltimore they're filling us up to over 140 people. We're flying back to Detroit and then to Chicago and we'll be done.

Detroit looks just like we left it a few hours earlier but some ice clung to the wings as we came through the clouds so a truck has to squirt us with stuff to melt the ice. 

We sure don't want to waste any time now because we all want to get home. Chris has only an hour before his commuter flight leaves for Cleveland, and Steve, one of the flight attendants, is running for a plane to Florida.

It all goes pretty smoothly and we land on time even with 80 or so knots of headwind. I don't even know what a knot of wind is but it sounds important.

More pilots meet us to take our plane back to California and we're free to go. Our commuter flight doesn't leave for three hours so we go to the lounge to do some online training. Boy is that boring!
Maybe the real Mae has a better deal.

After getting up so early, it is tough to stay awake while learning about new checklists.

The apple didn't last very long and we're hungry but we have to decide where to eat. There are so many good choices here in Chicago!

There's McDonalds which is ok but also Potbelly's. Their sandwiches are great but the line is out the door. We decide to wait in line at Potbelly's and it was great.

Soon enough though it's time to go. We go to our gate and luckily there are seats available on our plane. We get to go home!

We get on board and settle in for the ride. Our only concern now is that the Kindle doesn't die. We forgot to charge it last night.

A short hour and 20 minutes later and we are back home. Since I'm actually a princess, I get princess parking and my chariot (actually a pickup truck) is waiting for us.

It's been a fun trip but boy am I tired! My uncle says it still beats working for a living, though. I'm not so sure.

Monday, November 24, 2014

I've Sat on a $600 Toilet Seat

The $600 toilet seat. More than just a cliche, over the years it's become an icon and a convenient shorthand for government waste. But does anyone really know the true story behind the famous $600 toilet seat?

I do.

I've even sat on one.

It's an airplane toilet seat. And more. Specifically, the famous $600 toilet seat was actually a fiberglass structure used in the restrooms of the Lockheed P-3C Orion sub chaser aircraft flown by the Navy. In a mini-scandal, it was determined that the fiberglass shroud structure that covered the toilet needed to be replaced. Since the aircraft was long out of production, new parts were needed to be tooled and constructed.

Once all the costs of production were rolled into the final product, the cost was about $600, probably a deal for a custom part long out of production. This will be no mystery to anyone who works on antique autos. One-off or limited production of complex parts and machinery is expensive. It also defines the crazy economics of military equipment procurement.

Politics Drives the Process

One might be forgiven for thinking that tactics, strategy, or mission needs drive the military equipment procurement process. To the extent that those concerns drive the process at all, the relation is only tangential. The driving force behind most military procurement is politics. And money. Lots of money.

Let's start with the politics. Every dime of military spending has to be authorized by Congress in a spending bill and signed into law as a budget by the President. In the classic American sausage making and log rolling traditions which define our politics, coalitions need to be formed, foes placated with spending in their districts and allies need to be enlisted to get military programs shepherded through the process to be funded.

The Senator from Lockheed may ally with the Senator from Boeing to get an airplane built if the engines are built in this state and the wings are built in that one. The process is such that new military aircraft need to have parts from nearly all 50 states in order to see the light of day. This isn't the unalloyed evil that some pacifists on the left make it out to be, but rather the process that needs to be accomplished to get things done in a representative democracy. But care must be taken.

In his famous 1961 farewell speech, President Dwight Eisenhower warned of the undue influence on our politics of the military-industrial complex. While military spending has proved a durable reality in the post-war years, it may finally be reaching a denouement as social and welfare spending eclipses military budgets.

The Europeans found out early on that in the contest between a social welfare state and military budgets, the military eventually loses. Having the Americans pick up the tab for your defense spending also helps but that topic is for another time.

In an unattributed quote, it was once said that as military aircraft became more expensive and fewer were bought, eventually all that could be afforded would be one aircraft which pilots would take turns flying. It was an eerily prescient quote. In World War II, American industrial might produced about 97,000 bomber aircraft. Fast forward 40 years and only 20 B-2s, the last manned bomber to be built in this country were produced. And that was at $2 billion per.

Now about the money. The simple fact of the matter is that military hardware is really expensive. Whenever the military procures an item from a civilian source it must be built to what is called "mil-spec" or military specifications. This means it has to be tough. Usually a lot tougher than a similar item sold on the commercial market if it's available at all.

As an example of mil-spec, consider the original Humvee or rather the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV). Built by AM General a subsidiary of American Motors as a replacement for the Jeep (from GP, or general purpose), a civilian variant was offered to the public in 1992. 

Coming equipped with many of the military upgrades such as automatic tire inflation, waist deep water capability and a 6.2L turbo diesel engine, the vehicle retailed at over $40,000 or over $65,000 today. And this was for a basic, spartan ride with few if any creature comforts.

Another factor which drives cost in the procurement of military hardware is limited production runs. Regardless of how many new fighters or bombers are bought, the cost of R&D is the same and is usually accounted for in a per unit cost. This results in the perverse result that a buy of fewer overall units results in a higher per unit cost as the R&D costs are spread over those fewer units.

In a similar civilian production run, the units produced are so great that the cost of R&D becomes vanishingly small. The H2 Hummer originally mass produced for the civilian market was a fraction of the cost of the mil-spec H1. But the same principle applies to things as mundane as a mil-spec flashlight all the way up to jet fighters.

A Perverse Process Produces Perverse Results

In my 21 year career in the military, I saw the above mentioned process at work time and again in the aircraft I flew and others. Here are a few of my favorites:

The KC-135

As I mentioned recently in my post about the Boeing 367-80, the KC-135 was saddled with inferior engines and an antique water-injection system because the commander of SAC, Gen. Curtis LeMay didn't want to wait for new technology Pratt & Whitney engines to be provided literally months later. This decision, driven by perceived military necessity in the 1950s has probably cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars but was at least sincerely made in light of the perceived threat the USSR provided.

Now nearly 55 years old, the aircraft is still flying and was scheduled for replacement a decade ago. The reason it hasn't been is a true comedy of malfeasance and incompetence. Back in the 1990s a tremendous effort was made to procure a replacement aircraft based on the Boeing 767 airframe. Amid allegations of illegal kickbacks among industry and military insiders, several people involved went to jail and the contract was thrown open again to bid.

When the European based Airbus won the contract, politics again reasserted itself and declared the contest invalid followed by yet another round of bidding going to the better correct airplane, the Boeing. The Boeing KC-46A Pegasus fleet should cost perhaps $100 billion when finally delivered.

The C-5B

The Air Force's original fleet of C-5A aircraft were built by Lockheed in the early 1970s. Boeing, which lost the competition for this contract, was the real winner by then diverting the resources it had gathered to build the 747. While over 1500 747s have since been built by the Boeing corporation, the Lockheed corporation only built 131 C-5 aircraft and doesn't even build transport category aircraft anymore.

The interesting part of the story is in the procurement of the C-5B aircraft. Due to structural problems in the original C-5A aircraft stemming from a gauge of aluminum which was too thin, the aircraft needed to have new wing skin applied. During this process, Lockheed offered additional C-5 aircraft to the military at a cut rate as most of the production tools were already in place.

Boeing again entered and lost this contest but probably for a good reason that with the Air Force's already existing fleet of C-5s the new Boeings would have been an additional parts and training burden. It was however the engines that are of interest.

The original GE TF-39 engines offered for the C-5B were woefully inadequate to existing technology available in the early '80s. The TF-39 produced about 39,000 lbs of thrust while new technology GE engines could produce thrust into the 50,000 lb range. While the C-5 could barely climb through 30,000 ft with a full cabin load, a 747-200 could go much higher and thereby save more fuel with the same weight.

In an interesting twist, GE was commissioned to complete a study as to which engine should power the new C-5Bs. Miraculously, they came to the conclusion that GE engines would be best. In fact, the same old technology TF-39s was their recommendation.

There was a certain method in this madness. Had GE recommended newer high thrust engines, the likely result would have been to throw the entire question open to another bidding contest with Rolls Royce and Pratt & Whitney being able to compete. Better to sell a mature product with an established profit margin than to risk a competition which might be lost.

The C-17

It was becoming apparent throughout the '80s that the military's aging fleet of transport aircraft would need to be replaced. The C-17, built by McDonnell Douglas and later the Boeing company was chosen as the replacement aircraft.

Having been designed to be all things to all people in the airlift world, the final product ended up not doing any of those things particularly well. The problem is that an aircraft designed to be a strategic lifter, that is to take stuff across oceans at high altitude, makes for a lousy forward operating location aircraft capable of landing in a war zone on an unimproved runway.

In fact the aircraft had originally been designed to replace aging C-130 aircraft which are excellent intra-theatre aircraft. It was later decided that the C-141 would also need replacing which was a strategic inter-theater airlifter. The C-17 became a sort of Frankenstein to do both of these things previously done by two separate aircraft. 

The aircraft was outfitted with Pratt & Whitney F117 engines which is a military variant of the commercial PW2000 engine used on airliners like the 757. In a unique and custom modification, the C-17 engines employ a directed flow thrust reverser to assist with short field landings. Again, this type of custom modification, not found on commercial aircraft, greatly increases the cost, reliability and weight of the engine. But that's not the interesting part.

The interesting part is that after the aircraft was delivered, the engines did not produce the required specific fuel consumption that had been promised. It was a gas hog. In fact, it was determined that the C-17 was not able to fly from California to Hawaii with a full cabin load because of the extra fuel needed.

This was eventually fixed, but at some cost. Extended range fuel tanks were fitted inside the cargo compartment at the wing root to add about 60,000 lbs of fuel capacity. If you see one at an airshow, walk inside and check it out. The tank hangs from the ceiling between the wings.

I could go on with additional stories about the B-1, B-2, and T-46 trainer aircraft but this post would never end. Suffice it to say that while the military procurement process resembles the legislative process in it's sausage making similarities, the military generally ends up with products that eventually are fixed to become quite useful.

Of course if you've really got to go, a $600 toilet seat is better than none at all.

I See a Retirement Job as a Drone Pilot in my Future

Detailed in a Wall Street Journal article today, the FAA has finally released a framework for the regulation of commercial drones in domestic airspace:

Highly anticipated federal rules on commercial drones are expected to require operators to have a license and limit flights to daylight hours, below 400 feet and within sight of the person at the controls, according to people familiar with the rule-making process. 
The drone industry has awaited commercial rules for about six years, hoping the rules would pave the way for widespread drone use in industries such as farming, filmmaking and construction. Current FAA policy allows recreational drone flights in the U.S. but essentially bars drones from commercial use.

Drones have great commercial potential for many applications including real estate, construction, pipeline and transmission line inspection, farming and movie making. Potential future applications include things like package delivery, biology, animal migration tracking and law enforcement surveillance. So the industry has reacted with dismay at the level of restriction placed on future commercial drone use:

Airline pilots and aircraft owners have supported the cautious approach. But some drone-industry officials predict a loud backlash to the proposal. 
“I feel like there’s a colossal mess coming,” said Michael Drobac, executive director of the Small UAV Coalition, an advocacy group for drone makers and innovators, including Google Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. The rule is going to be “so divorced from the technology and the aspirations of this industry…that we’re going to see a loud rejection.”

In addition to line of sight operations, and a 400 ft maximum altitude, the proposed rule making will require drone pilots to have a licensed pilot at the controls:

Since then, much of the growth has shifted to smaller drones. The expected rules are “going to be very restrictive for small systems,” she added. 
Jesse Kallman, head of regulatory affairs for drone-software firm Airware, said requiring commercial drone pilots to have cockpit training “will end up excluding someone who has hundreds of hours of experience on an unmanned aircraft in favor of a pilot who understands how to operate a Cessna but not an unmanned aircraft.”

So now I'm thinking to myself, "Self, do you know anyone with a pilots license who might need a part time job sometime in the future?"

And my self answered right back, "Why come to think of it, yes! Yes I do know someone who could charge ridiculous fees to fly a drone around someone's backyard or construction site."

And of course this is all for the sake of safety, with the imprimatur of the world's preeminent aviation regulatory body, the FAA. (heh)

Now, seriously, I get that there needs to be some sort of regulatory framework for the commercial use of drones. Any collision between a drone and an aircraft will likely result in a catastrophe. So yes, the FAA is right to insert itself into the operation of drones.

But also in true circle-the-wagons regulatory fashion, the agency goes completely overboard and throws the baby out with the bathwater. Common sense dictates that there should be different rules for drones based on size and altitude. A collision with a child's two pound toy flying around the yard, while potentially serious, is quite unlikely whereas a collision with a 50 pound pipeline inspection drone would likely bring down any aircraft.

That common sense approach didn't happen:

The agency also plans to group all drones weighing less than 55 pounds under one set of rules. That would dash hopes for looser rules on the smallest drones, such as the 2.8-pound Phantom line of camera-equipped, four-rotor helicopters made by China’s SZ DJI Technology Co. Similar-sized devices are seen as the most commercially viable drones and have surged in popularity in the last two years. 
Small-drone supporters say such models are less risky to people and structures than heavier drones like Boeing Co. ’s ScanEagle, a gas-powered, 40-pound aircraft with a 10-foot wingspan that can stay aloft for more than 24 hours. ConocoPhillips Co. uses the ScanEagle to gather data on Arctic ice pack and whale migrations.

But with today's technology, collisions with man made flying objects are becoming ever less likely. For over a decade now, transponder and anti-collision technology has made every other aircraft within 40 miles visible on a display in the cockpit. This technology is affordable and can easily be installed on commercial drones. Even hang gliders are now required to have transponders under certain circumstances.

The FAA at least understands its incentives. Famously known as a "tombstone agency" meaning it typically reacts after an accident, any fatal accident will draw instant headlines and mean lots of SES scale bureaucrats in cushy sinecures with fat government pensions will soon be applying for the non-government jobs they previously regulated out of existence. In other words, they'll be fired. That much they get.

Applying complex risk assessment tools used to balance the needs of commercial aviation safety with the potential benefits of drones is not really their bag. If a drone manufacturer fails or new time or energy saving applications never come into being well that's too bad. Writing intelligent rules that provide maximum safety with maximum benefit is really hard work. Much easier to play it safe.

Were I writing the rules, requiring special equipment and certification when operating near airports seems sensible. Also requiring transponders seems to make sense but the line of sight operations restriction is silly as data links can provide a virtual birds eye view to the pilot as stated in the article. This is the approach that was taken in Canada.

In their typical glacial pace, the FAA will now open the proposed rulemaking to comments for several months after which the actual rules might not appear for one or two more years. But hey, after waiting six years already, what's a few more waiting to get your business started going to matter?

In the meantime, since the FAA quadrupled the hours required for new pilots to get their first airline job, there should be plenty of pilots hanging around to fly the pipeline inspection and crop dusting aircraft that drones are ready to replace.

And by requiring prospective drone pilots to have real airplane licenses, I know of a slightly overweight and greying airline pilot who will have a great retirement job waiting for him.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Flying While Bored

I addressed the implication of flight automation in the loss of Air France 447 last year when the voice and data recorders were recovered from the floor of the Atlantic Ocean (in itself a small miracle). Now writer William Langewiesche explores the subject in a recent edition of Vanity Fair.

Langewiesche is very thorough and comes to many of the same conclusions about aircraft automation that are slowly being realized by industry experts and the FAA.

The problem of how this issue will be addressed is still an open question. This is especially poignant as automation becomes ever more pervasive. Last year's crash of an Asiana 777 at San Francisco highlighted the pitfalls of pilots who are not prepared to take over flying when the machines can't.

Humans are uniquely ill suited to sit on their hands and monitor the performance of machines. They need to be kept actively in the loop to stay engaged. And yet the machines aren't good enough to be left on their own.

Today's modern aircraft have the worst of both worlds: machines which are quite fallible, and bored, disengaged humans with a fading skill set who are expected to take over at a moment's notice, usually at a critical phase of flight.

Aviation Wisdom

The field of aviation is known for lots of homespun wisdom and gallows humor. The true nature of the business is that you can die if you don't do it right (and sometimes if you do). Here are a few of the more popular ones:

Courtesy Aviation Airborne

How to fly: Aviate, Navigate, Communicate (and in that order)

Thou shalt maintain thy airspeed, lest the ground reach up and smite thee.

Superior pilots are those who use their superior judgment to avoid those situations requiring their superior skills.

The only time you have too much fuel is when you're on fire.

In a twin-engine aircraft, the purpose of the second engine is to supply the pilot with enough power to fly to the scene of the crash.

When a prang seems inevitable, endeavor to strike the softest, cheapest object in the vicinity, as slowly and gently as possible. - Advice given to RAF pilots during W.W.II.

When in doubt, hold on to your altitude. No-one has ever collided with the sky.

Try to learn from the mistakes of others. You won't live long enough to make all of them yourself.

If God had meant man to fly, he'd have given him lots more money.

You've never been lost until you've been lost at Mach 3.

Airspeed, altitude or brains: Pick any two.

When a flight is proceeding incredibly well, something may be forgotten.

Just remember, if you crash because of weather, your funeral will be held on a sunny day. - Layton A. Bennett

Never fly the 'A' model of anything. - Ed Thompson

A pilot who doesn't have any fear probably isn't flying his plane to its maximum. - Jon McBride, astronaut

If you're faced with a forced landing, fly the thing as far into the crash as possible. - Bob Hoover

If an airplane is still in one piece, don't cheat on it; Ride the bastard down. - Ernest K. Gann, advice from the 'old pelican'

Though I Fly Through the Valley of Death I Shall Fear No Evil For I Am 80,000 Feet and Climbing. - Sign over the entrance to the SR-71 operating location on Kadena.

Never fly in the same cockpit with someone braver than you. - Richard Herman, Jr., 'Firebreak'

There is no reason to fly through a thunderstorm in peacetime. - Sign over squadron ops desk at Davis-Monthan AFB, AZ, 1970.

The three best things in life are a good landing, a good orgasm, and a good bowel movement. The night carrier landing is one of the few opportunities in life to experience all three at the same time.

Try to stay in the middle of the air. Do not go near the edges of it. The edges of the air can be recognized by the appearance of ground, buildings, sea, trees and interstellar space. It is much more difficult to fly there.

The three most common expressions in aviation are, "Why is it doing that?", "Where are we?" and "Oh Crap".

Weather forecasts are horoscopes with numbers.

A smooth landing is mostly luck; two in a row is all luck; three in a row is prevarication.

Helicopters are for the rich... or the enlisted.

I remember when sex was safe and flying was dangerous.

We have a perfect record in aviation: we never left one up there!

Flashlights are tubular metal containers kept in a flight bag for the purpose of storing dead batteries.

Flying the airplane is more important than radioing your plight to a person on the ground incapable of understanding it.

What is the similarity between air traffic controllers and pilots? If a pilot screws up, the pilot dies; If ATC screws up, the pilot dies.

If something hasn't broken on your helicopter, it's about to.

Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect. - Captain A. G. Lamplugh

In flying I have learned that carelessness and overconfidence are usually far more dangerous than deliberately accepted risks. - Wilbur Wright in a letter to his father, September 1900

The ultimate responsibility of the pilot is to fulfill the dreams of the countless millions of earthbound ancestors who could only stare skyward and wish.

If helicopters are so safe, how come there are no vintage / classic helicopter fly-ins?

A 'good' landing is one from which you can walk away. A 'great' landing is one after which they can use the aeroplane again.

Takeoff is optional. Landing is mandatory...

If you push the stick forward, the houses get bigger. If you pull the stick back, they get smaller. That is, unless you keep pulling the stick all the way back, then they get bigger again.

Flying isn't dangerous. Crashing is what's dangerous.

One of the most important skills that a pilot must develop is the skill to ignore those things that were designed by non-pilots to get the pilot's attention.

It's always better to be down on the ground wishing you were up in the air than up in the air wishing you were down on the ground.

The probability of survival is inversely proportional to the angle of arrival.

Stay out of clouds. Reliable sources report that mountains have been known to hide out in clouds.

You start with a full bag of luck and an empty bag of experience. The trick is to fill the bag of experience before you empty the bag of luck.

In the ongoing battle between objects made of aluminum going hundreds of miles per hour and the ground going zero miles per hour, the ground has yet to lose.

Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.

Keep looking around. There's always something you've missed.

Remember, gravity is not just a good idea, it's the law. And it's not subject to repeal.

There are old pilots and there are bold pilots. However, there are no old, bold pilots.

If you're ever faced with a forced landing at night, turn on the landing lights to see the landing area. If you don't like what you see, turn' em back off.

Always remember you fly an aeroplane with your head, not your hands.

You know you've landed with the wheels up when it takes full power to taxi to the ramp.

Things which do you no good in aviation: The sky above you. The runway behind you. The fuel still in the truck. Half a second ago. Approach plates in the car. The airspeed you don't have.

What's the difference between God and fighter pilots? God doesn't think he's a fighter pilot.

Trust your captain but keep your seat belt securely fastened.

An aircraft may disappoint a good pilot, but it won't surprise him.

There are only two things required to fly a modern airliner: a pilot and a dog. It's the pilot's job to feed the dog. It's the dog's job to bite the pilot if he touches anything in the cockpit.

Aviation is not so much a profession as it is a disease.

There are three simple rules for making a smooth landing. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.

Passengers prefer old captains and young flight attendants.

The only thing worse than a captain who never flew as copilot is a copilot who once was a captain.

If the wings are traveling faster than the fuselage, it's probably a helicopter...

Any attempt to stretch fuel is guaranteed to increase head wind.

A thunderstorm is never as bad on the inside as it appears on the outside. It's worse.

I know there's a lot of money in aviation because I put it there.

It's easy to make a small fortune in aviation. You just start off with a large fortune.

I'd rather be lucky than good.

The propeller is just a big fan in the front of the plane to keep the pilot cool. When it stops, pilots start to sweat.

Regards engine power: Lots is good, more is better, and too much is just enough.

A checkride ought to be like a skirt, short enough to be interesting but still be long enough to cover everything.

Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine.

It's better to be down here wishing you were up there, than to be up there wishing you were down here.

Experience is a hard teacher. First comes the test, then the lesson.

In thrust I trust.

It is far better to arrive late in this world than early in the next.

You can land anywhere once.

I want to die like my grandfather did, peacefully in his sleep. Not screaming in terror like his passengers.

If it ain't broke, don't fix it; if it ain't fixed, don't fly it.

Fuel in the tanks is limited. Gravity is forever.

Never trust a fuel gauge.

The worst day of flying still beats the best day of real work.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Pilot Violated Rules Before Crash Landing

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal details some of the results of the NTSB investigation into the crash landing of a Southwest plane at LaGuardia airport last year.
NTSB documents indicate the captain violated company and industry safety standards, which require pilots to work as a team, and in all cases, they must declare their intentions before taking over controls or changing any flight-control settings.
But here's the interesting part:
The safety board also revealed that about three years earlier, the captain was ordered to undergo remedial company training for her leadership style. 
According to interviews released by the safety board, the move was prompted by repeated complaints from first officers about her alleged overbearing attitude in the cockpit. After the training, she returned to her regular flying schedule.
So Southwest apparently knew that this pilot had had problems previously. Now because of this incident, a much greater liability may have been incurred. No doubt that there will be some legal circling of the wagons here.

I don't think the problem of how to control rogue members of a profession is unique to aviation. Stories of rogue doctors or cops abound and create a tension among peers between correcting poor behavior and respect for a colleague. One of the problems is that discipline can only be meted out by management and not peers.

Though I don't know about Southwest, at most airlines, pilots can request to not fly with another particular pilot if they don't get along. The problem with this system is the pilot being avoided may never know that there might be a dozen or so other pilots who won't fly with them. Giving this feedback to pilots might help the difficult ones in a self assessment.

Or perhaps not.

Oft times the people who need feedback the most are the least receptive to it. Individual pilots know who to avoid, and the company knows who the high avoidance pilots are, but of course the flying public does not.

At least until their lawyers find out during discovery after an incident. There should probably be a better way.

UPDATE: Here's a link to the actual NTSB report.

Friday, November 07, 2014

So Why Do They Close the $%!# Door So Early?

Well the obvious answer to that question is so that the airplane doesn't leave late. But who cares when the airplane actually leaves the gate? Or takes off?

As far as a passenger is concerned, the only time that matters is the time the jetway door closes. Why, in the interest of customer service doesn't the airline publish that time? And why do all the airlines seem to use a random number generator to decide how far in advance of the "departure" time that the jetway door closes. Sometimes it's five minutes, sometimes ten, sometimes earlier if you're not checked in at the airport. 

(And don't get me started on the agents who seem to relish slamming the door on you. It's like some kind of weird fetish.)

Well, there actually is someone who is watching for when the aircraft actually leaves the gate. The US Department of Transportation keeps and publishes statistics on individual flight departure times. Any flight which leaves (or arrives) more than 15 minutes past the scheduled time published in the computer reservation system is considered "delayed", but all late departures no matter how small are tallied and available for comparison.

Departure and arrival times are logged automatically by sensors on the aircraft. It's not specifically when the door closes, but rather when the pilot releases the parking brake with all the doors closed. And there are quite a few things that have to happen before the brakes can be released.

In the back of the aircraft, the flight attendants have to make sure that all passengers are in their seats. Even though every passenger travelling through major airports like Denver, Dulles, Vegas and Sacramento travel on fast moving trains while standing, the FAA considers it dangerous to have passengers standing on an airplane during pushback. Go figure. Southwest even fought (and lost) a lawsuit against this restriction years ago.

The boarding agent is not even permitted to close the aircraft door until everyone is seated and all luggage is properly stowed. Only when that happens can the front door be legally closed.

When the back end of the aircraft is all set, the lead flight attendant will notify the pilots and close the cockpit door. Since 9/11 it is illegal to start the engines unless the cockpit door is closed and locked.

Up front the pilots are rather busy at this time as well. All airlines have slightly different procedures but are doing roughly the same things. Last minute checklists and takeoff data need to be taken care of and contact needs to be made with the ground crew who operate the pushback tug. The ground crew is also busy making sure all the cargo doors and other hatches are closed which are also verified by lights in the cockpit.

When all of that is done, radio contact needs to be made with ground control for pushback clearance. If there's an aircraft taxiing behind your parking spot or some other delay, you may need to sit at the gate waiting for a while for clearance.

The way most airlines pay their pilots is by flight hours. And flight hours are defined as the time between brake release at the origination and shutdown at the destination gate. So the captain, to an extent, gets to start the payclock by releasing brakes as soon as possible. 

Now there are some other details such as minimum pay rigs (rules) which mean a few minutes of released brakes hardly make a difference in pay. But if the gate agent asks me if I'd mind pushing off knowing I'm ground delayed, but she needs the gate for an inbound flight, I'm properly incentivized to agree. And everyone hates waiting for a gate after landing so I like to help them out as well.

But remember that releasing the brake is a necessary but not sufficient element of an early departure. If I release the brake but the door is still open, the clock doesn't start. (The airplane won't roll because it's connected to the tug by now). Of course, once the door is closed, no one else is coming aboard so I don't have the ability to wait for anyone. All I get to do is delay brake release for a few minutes if the agent is being a horse's rear end thereby giving him a delay just to pimp him. (No, not really. That would be unethical).

Economics Again

No the real reason the airlines like to leave early is the hypercompetitive nature of the airline business as expressed through product differentiation. And blame the internet too.

Airlines, like cellular carriers are in a unique position of having to sell nearly the exact same product as their competitors. All airlines fly to the same government run airports, through government controlled airspace and all their customers go through the same government run grope masquerading as security theater.

All commercial airliners are now built by one of only two global aircraft manufacturers whose products are difficult to tell apart except by airplane geeks. The weather and air traffic delays are generally the same no matter which airline you fly.

So like laundry detergent or cell service, airlines need to emphasize the differences in their products, of which there are precious few. While pricing can be a major selling point, increasing fuel costs act a great leveler. As the price of fuel eats an ever larger piece of the cost pie, individual efficiencies which competent airline managements bring to the table are diminished in the overall cost picture.

While the high costs of the remaining big three legacy carriers, United, American, and Delta were shed through the cycle of bankruptcies in the post 9/11 years, the costs of the low cost airlines have increased to where there's not a great deal of cost advantage for anyone. Spirit Airlines, as an outlier, has managed to keep its costs low, but the service is so spartan that it's not clear whether their model will scale.

Airlines have even tried to be clever by charging separately for bag fees and also by breaking out the government taxes and fees but the DOT has required that those taxes and security fees be added into the total price shown on their reservation sites.

Back to the DOT

Other metrics used to differentiate airline service are the statistics kept by the DOT.  Those are customer complaints, lost bags, and ontime performance. Think of those as RBIs or error stats for a baseball player. They make or break you. 

Southwest distinguished itself last year, and not in a good way, by rearranging their schedule to make better use of their airplanes. It didn't work and their ontime performance plunged to dead last in the industry lineup. Highly embarrassing to their marketing strategy of a being a no-frills yet dependable airline. They have since made amends.

It is the wide dissemination of airline performance statistics through the internet which has gotten airline managements focused like a laser on early departures. In the pre-internet days, only true travel geeks would hunt down these stats. Now everyone sees them with a mouse click. Gate and boarding agents themselves have been threatened with sanctions or even termination for having too many late departures to their credit. 

And as Vinnie, the gangster from Risky Business famously said, you never f--k wit a man's livelihood!

So could there be a solution to all this? Maybe, but it would require a universally adopted new standard of when "departure" actually happens. I totally get that even if the DOT and airlines were disposed to change this system why they'd be reluctant. The devil is always in the details and should the system be changed, there is little doubt that some clever MBAs up in the executive suite would be figuring out clever ways to game the system to their advantage.

So in the meantime, get to the gate early. Or drive.