Saturday, April 19, 2014

Oh Say Can You See

One of the benefits to being paid to fly around the country is the office view. Not only is it visually spectacular, it offers an insight on our world that not many people get to see. And we get to see it in every different kind of lighting and weather. Even the weather itself makes for some spectacular scenery. Anyone who has lived near a large body of water can appreciate how the same vista can look completely different day after day. The view from the cockpit is a little like that.

Looking down at the ground reveals features both natural and man-made which are mostly hidden from the view of those who live their lives in offices or homes. Even those who drive the nations' highways get only a limited view of a mile perhaps on either side of the road. No, I wouldn't trade my corner office view with just about anyone.

As we fly along, many features are instantly recognizable but quite a few more are not. Some may be familiar but present themselves quite differently when seen from above. And there are some objects, patterns or buildings that are just inexplicable.

For example, a few dozen miles east of El Paso there are grids of lines carved into the desert for no apparent reason. One can speculate that they might at one time have been a planned community which was never built but its only a guess. Numerous other features which sit in the middle of nowhere or seem improbable can be seen from the air. Some things seen are military in nature and some are related to agriculture.

After a while you begin to recognize how things look from altitude such as the peanut shape of golf greens or crop circles. Here are a number of photos taken around the country of various things that I've found interesting. (And for the inevitable smart alek who will ask "who's flying the plane?" none of these photos were taken while I was flying the airplane). Go ahead and click on the images for a larger view. (All photo credits - Rob)


Different styles of agriculture are easily visible from the air. On flat land, there will be straight crop lines or crop circles. On hilly land such as this, terracing is apparent. The snow sets off the terrace lines nicely. This photo was taken just east of Omaha.

Here are some fields near Salinas, California. Different crops appear as different colors though I have no idea what is being grown. Plastic covered fields for strawberries to keep weeds down appear light in color.


Power plants are always interesting features. In America today, very little old line "smoke stack" industries are left such as ore smelters, so when smoke stacks or cooling towers are seen, they are most likely power plants. Some have ponds instead of stacks as well.

Here is a shot of the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station just west of Phoenix. There are three units here each apparently in operation as evidenced by the steam plumes emanating from the cooling towers. Also visible are some gas fired peaker plants used to supplement the grid at high demand times and a number of cooling ponds.

Visible here on the left is a coal powered plant made obvious by the large pile of coal. On the right is a refinery. These are both on the Chicago River just southwest of downtown.

Here is another industrial area on Lake Michigan. What they might do here I have no idea but the dark water flowing into the lake is more likely silt than anything else.

This plant located near Tampa looks to be fuel oil powered. Notice the lack of smoke stacks or cooling towers.
Cleverly hidden in this photo is California's Diablo Canyon Nuclear Generating Station. The last of California's operational nuclear fleet, this station is behind the bluff in the center of the photo nestled between Pismo Beach and Morrow Rock on the ocean. Unfortunately visitors are not allowed at the plant but there is a very informative visitors' center in nearby San Luis Obispo.

This is a train yard in Columbus, Ohio. From the air, train tracks can be difficult to tell apart from highways. One must look for clues such as intersections, bridges and ramps to be sure.

This windmill farm is located in the Montezuma Hills in the Sacramento River Delta. A favorite spot with windsurfers, the wind is quite strong here as the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers cut through California's coastal range providing a pressure relief valve between moist cool air coming off the Pacific and the warmer dry air in the central valley. One of the sites of California's original wind farms built in the '70s, the current windmills dwarf the original models and were only recently installed.


Large cities are always impressive from the air. Trying to imagine all the people in one place can be overwhelming.

These two shots are of the Big Apple from over Brooklyn looking to the northwest. The new World Trade Center is clearly visible as is the Brooklyn Bridge, East River and New Jersey in the distance. It doesn't look so big from the air but try getting across town at rush hour.

On the right is a night picture of Manhattan looking due south. The Harlem river is visible in the foreground. Picking things out at night takes a bit of practice as many things look completely different in daylight. By the way, this is about where Sully was when Canadian geese took out his engines forcing a landing in the Hudson seen on the right of the photo.

This a picture of Bean Town (Boston) from perhaps 40,000 ft looking to the southeast.

Chicago (my kind of town) is quite striking on a clear day. The ice only left the area several weeks and most Chicagoans are probably hoping that Spring falls on a weekend this year. Chicago has GOT to be one rockin' town because no one is moving here for the weather. Soldier Field is visible in the lower left hand part of the shot.

Here's a shot of the greater New York City area from the north. The Hudson River, Central Park, George Washington Bridge (Chris Christie call your office, please), Staten Island, and even Sandy Hook, NJ in the distance are visible.


We occasionally get to fly over the places that we're supposed to land. This might be because we're coming from the west and landing to the east which means flying past the airport and turning around. Above is Chicago's Midway with O'Hare below to the right. 

This is a shot of Tampa International from the south looking north. The folks living under this approach have managed to get the western runway designated as primary to keep the noise down. It was closed today.

La Guardia airport, named after Mayor Fiorello La Guardia opened in 1939 and hasn't been improved since. With short runways, restricted airspace, and limited ramp space, this airport is a challenge to fly into and suffers congestion and delays. It's also where Sully's ill fated flight originated.

 To the left is Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson airport. One of the busiest in the world, there are more than the usual amount of "local" rules in effect. It's important to keep up with complex taxi instructions in this maze.
Cool Vistas

Some views from the airplane are just cool. Here are a few of my faves: This is a view of the Hudson river looking south from just north of West Point. The school is on the right side of the river at the bend. You can see a fair amount of ice on the river posing navigation problems for river traffic.

This is a view of Treasure Island which is just to the west of St Petersburg, Fla. It also happens to be the site of where we spent Spring break at the Bilmar hotel. The beach was delightful!

Just to the south of Treasure Island are some more barrier style islands. Often you can see details in the surface of the water from many miles up.

This is a view of Philadelphia from South Jersey looking north across the Delaware river. Philly Intl Airport is off the left side with the sports complex in South Philly clearly visible. The SS United States is still berthed on the Delaware awaiting refurbishment into a museum. It's docked on the Pa side north of the Walt Whitman Bridge.

Here's a very popular site to point out to the peeps in back: Crater Lake. The remnants of a tremendous volcanic explosion, the lake is one of the deepest in North America.

Drought ravaged California can't seem to catch a break, not that they deserve one. Here's a reservoir south of San Jose which looks more than half empty. And this is at the end of the rainy season so it will be a long summer. Cali has two colors from the air: green during the rainy winter, and brown in summer. With so little rain, Cali was still very brown when I flew over in January. It normally goes green in November. It's green in this shot but the grasses will soon turn their summertime brown.

Historically, California was covered in perennial grasses but non-native annual grasses brought by Spanish settlers in the 1700s quickly displaced the more drought tolerant native species. Today, California is 99% covered with annual grasses from the Mediterranean.

On the other side of the continental divide, the Finger lakes in upstate New York seem to be doing well, water-wise. The Finger lakes were carved by glaciers in the Pleistocene era and yes, I looked that up on Wikipedia.

 Here in the Sawtooth mountains of Idaho we can see where wild fires stripped the trees. Here the snow is clearly seen instead of the usual conifers. Forest fires are a routine site when flying out west. Aircrews help authorities by reporting smoke when flying over.
Except for storms, pilots normally don't fear clouds. They might roughen up the ride a little bit or throw a bit of ice on the wind screen but otherwise are no problem. Except for one especially deadly type of cloud even more deadly than the Cumulo-nimbus (storm cloud). That would be the Cumulo-granite. Yes, the one with a mountain hiding inside. Here's a good example. That's Mt Adams in Washington state.

This is what a ski resort looks like from altitude in late Spring. The only snow left is that on the trails which are groomed with man-made snow. This one is in New Hampshire west of Concord. The lake on the left still appears to be frozen while the one in the foreground is not. It can seem unusual to appear like this until you realize that the frozen one may be at a much higher altitude than the thawed one.

There are just some very cool looking mountain features out west, especially when the snow brings out the contrast. Here's a view from somewhere in southern Montana.

Strange Beautiful Stuff

Some things seen from the airplane just don't seem to make much sense. It might be a building, pattern on the ground or some other unknown item. Perhaps some of these things are remnants of long abandoned construction or military projects. Rumor has it that some markings out in the California desert are those left from Patton's 7th Army training to do battle with Rommel in North Africa.

Here is a shot of some swamp marsh bordering Tampa Bay. In it can be seen some sort of grid but what it is and how it got there is anyone's guess.

Sunrises and sunsets can be particularly beautiful when seen from altitude. It's even possible to see the "shadow" of the Earth when the sun comes up behind you. Here's a sunset on descent into Vegas.

While airliners are capable of navigation independent of ground based aids, some "highways" in the sky still appear to exist. Here's a number of contrails headed from the Northeast towards Florida during Spring Break.

These ugly looking red areas are more benign than they might appear. They are salt evaporation ponds formerly owned by Cargill near San Fran. The ponds were flooded and then allowed to dry leaving the salt. The color comes from algae which likes the salinity. The intensity of the color varies with salinity. The ponds were acquired by conservation groups in 2003 and are being restored to wetlands.

This winter has seen an abnormal amount of ice due to global warming climate change. This shot is over Lake Erie looking west. Cleveland is on the left bank of the lake.

Places I've Been

Flying over places where you've spent time is always cool. You get to look for places you've spent years living only to discover they look nothing like you imagined from altitude.

This is a picture of Tennessee where I currently reside. The lighter looking peanut shaped areas in the lower left of the photo are the dormant greens of the Governor's Club. Dolly Parton's house is in the picture. Tracks that look like highways across the lower part of the picture are actually powerline and gas pipeline right of ways.

This is a shot of Lewisburg, Pa, home of Bucknell University. In spite of my best efforts, I did leave here with an engineering degree. Joining the military did however spare me from having to remember anything I might have learned there (in class).

This is where I grew up outside of Philadelphia. The Springton reservoir in the photo is just south of my hometown of Newtown Square.

Here's a neat shot of the Sangre de Christo mountains south of Colorado Springs. Above them is a long cloud called a lenticular cloud formed by wind currents forced up over the mountains. Seeing this type of cloud at high altitude alerts pilots to a phenomenon known as mountain wave. Sort of like surfing a wave, caution must be used as mountain wave can cause the airplane to exceed its maximum mach.

 Here's another shot of clouds being held up by mountains. As the moist air traverses the mountains it gives up its moisture and leaves only dry air downwind.

These next few shots are of various sun rises and sunsets I've been fortunate enough to capture.

When asked what its like to be a pilot...I always answer: beats working for a living.

I hope you've enjoyed this little photo montage of a few weeks in my office. They were all taken with my phone camera while I was deadheading in back of the aircraft though I did take the liberty to add some contrast to a few of them.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

What Will They Find?

After a month of looking for the lost Malaysia 777 with no luck, it appears as if the surface search is coming to an end. There are simply no clues on the surface of the ocean that can be traced to the missing airliner. Efforts now, after having possibly hearing the last calls from the submerged beacon will focus on an underwater search using autonomous submersibles.

 These amazing machines have the ability to search the ocean floor thousands of feet beneath the surface for any clues. The problem is they are painstakingly slow having an underwater speed of only several miles per hour. It may take years of searching to find anything. The missing Air France recovery took several years of search and that was after finding floating debris from the crash.

 The question then arises that should the wreckage of MH370 be found, what clues will it give up as to the cause of its disappearance?

There are two "black boxes" that will need to be recovered to obtain the most complete picture of the fated airliner's last flight. The digital flight data recorder (DFDR) and the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) will both need to be found to have all the information available.

The flight data recorder will reveal most of the details regarding the state of the aircraft itself. For instance, there has been some speculation that the aircraft was tracked at an altitude of 45,000 feet by a military radar. The DFDR will confirm if this happened. If someone flying the aircraft intended to incapacitate the cabin occupants through oxygen deprivation, this theory might be confirmed.

The DFDR will also detail the last moments of the flight and whether it hit the water abruptly or was eased down so as to keep the aircraft in one piece. Had someone intended a soft touchdown to minimize flotsam and debris, that would have been the way to do it.

I believe that the cockpit voice recorder may be of less value. Assuming that the hijacking was carried out by one person, we might expect the last two hours of the CVR to be silent as the flight ventured further south over the ocean. Should conversation be heard, that would mean a team of hijackers in collusion. The act of silently flying the plane hours away from land indicates, though, that the hijackers had no "message" of grievance they wanted to share either.

Most voice recorders are supposed to capture the last two hours of sound in the cockpit and then to overwrite the data. At least that's what we're told. Depending on which conspiracy theories about spook-craft you believe, overwritten data my also be able to be obtained through advanced electronic analysis. Still, it seems unlikely that much useful data on the recorder might be found.

Lastly would be evidence found on the aircraft itself, namely who might be found in the cockpit. If only one pilot is found there, then it will be known that that person incapacitated the other pilot. If both are found there, determining the cause of death will be important, and we add likely impossible. If one pilot had hit the other on the head, only a detailed examination might determine that.

All these details will depend upon the condition of the aircraft should it ever be found. The depths at which the aircraft may lie are at the very limits of salvage equipment. The Bluefin vehicles have no mechanical arms to manipulate any wreckage they may find so that will have to be accomplished by other underwater vehicles.

Questions of how long the various governments are willing to take to find the missing plane also need to be asked. The Chinese will likely finance the continuing search effort for some time as they have the resources but if nothing is found in say two years or more, when will the effort be abandoned?

Malaysia 370 has a secret and is apparently still unwilling to give it up.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Commuting to Work

I commute to work, which makes me a commuter. In most professions such a statement would be unremarkable but in the airline business the term is freighted with a somewhat different meaning. "Commuters" in the airline business have their primary place of business in a different city than the one in which they live. 

As far as the airline is concerned, a pilot's "domicile" or "base" is their work location. That is the location of  their supervisor, company mailbox,  and the start and finish of most trips. Airlines maintain several domiciles for their crews and the assignment to one or the other is based on seniority. Where a pilot actually lives is entirely up to the pilot as long as he can get to work on time. This opens up many possibilities.

Most airlines allow their employees to travel for no or low cost on their own airplanes as long as there are empty seats. An employee riding on their company's planes are known as "non-revs" which stands for non-revenue passenger. You're there but the airline isn't making any money. This is becoming more difficult as planes are very full lately.

Besides the obvious advantages of living where you'd like, commuting can have financial advantages as well. I choose to commute from a tax free state thereby saving tens of thousands of dollars from avoiding a high tax state. Other advantages might mean better schools, cheaper real estate, and better weather. Some bases in expensive northern cities such as Newark or Detroit are well established "commuter" cities: No one in their right mind would choose to live in such places.

There are downsides to commuting as well. For starters, you get to spend even fewer nights in your own bed than you already do. Assuming one trip per week minus thee weeks of vacation means maybe 45 more nights away from home. This is due to most trips leaving too early or arriving too late to get a flight to or from home. This also means you have to spend your own coin on a place to sleep.

Remember that as far as the airline is concerned, when you arrive in your domicile at the end of a trip, you are home. If your actual home is in another city and it's midnight, you need a place to sleep until you can catch a flight home the next morning. Hence a hotel or crashpad on your own nickel.

I'm a crashpad guy but there are advantages to both. Crashpads don't need a reservation and are cheaper but are usually a semi-rundown house or apartment that you share with half a dozen other pilots or God help you, flight attendants. Pilot-only crashpads are boring and lacking any drama which is why they're conducive to sleep which is the point. Mine has wifi, beer in the fridge, and a large screen TV. All the comforts of home.

Some pilots are die-hard commuters while others swear they'll never live outside a domicile. Still others start out commuting but slowly come to hate it like a pebble in a shoe and eventually move. I flew a trip with a pilot who had recently moved his family a thousand miles to a new city only to find that he had moved back after only several months of commuting.

I have an uneasy truce with commuting. Living where I do is a great deal but leaving the house the night before having to be at work is an unwelcome chore. Putting on my "thousand yard stare" and just trying not to think too much about all the time spent away is working for now. Once all the kids have left, wifey and I will be free agents to live where we like and to commute...or not.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Bad Pilot

It is becoming depressingly clear that no trace of the missing Malaysian airliner is likely to be found. The simple enormity of this search is hard to appreciate for those who haven't spent much time flying at 500 kts for hour after hour over empty ocean.

The current search area now encompasses an area of 84,000 sq miles about 1100 miles off the coast of Australia. A three hour flight is required just to get to the area which limits search time to only three or so hours before return. Search by ship is slow and tedious.

It is also likely that the battery powering the beacon attached to the airliner's black boxes will soon run out of juice and fall silent. The listening device being used to listen for the beacon can only be towed slowly through the water so ambient noise doesn't drown out the signal which may only be audible for perhaps 10 miles at best. This means that at the depths in that part of the Indian Ocean, the listening device would need to be almost directly above the aircraft to hear it. And as of now with no surface debris, deciding where to tow the listening device is sheer guesswork.

Though speculation initially ran rampant, I've noticed an interesting down-tick in further speculation about the one theory which seems most plausible: that the captain hijacked and crashed his own aircraft.

I think the reason for the reticence to further explore this possibility in the media is that it's so disconcerting. Many of the efforts to protect commercial aircraft from terrorism in the aftermath of 9/11 focused on the protection of the cockpit. These measures included armored cockpit doors and armed pilots. Now to consider the possibility that the trusted person behind the armored door himself may be a source of terror would understandably leave many passengers feeling more vulnerable than ever. After all, pilots are supposed to be the very picture of competence and stability.

That image of integrity and rectitude has long been fostered by airlines to assuage a natural fear of the quite unnatural process of hurtling through the air in an aluminum tube five miles above the earth. A competent professional after all, is up front at the controls.

One of the great frustrations of pilots following 9/11 was the zeal with which the newly empowered goons working for the TSA would remove cuticle scissors and shampoo bottles from crew luggage. We were told that having such things which would facilitate a breach of the cockpit, were prohibited. Arguing that having access to the cockpit was actually our job description would bring blank stares. No pilot ever needed to have a nail clipper to commit mayhem as has been demonstrated in the disappearance of MH370 and other incidents.

I do wish to make a note that I am very sensitive to the issue of blaming pilots for aviation disasters which unfortunately has a long and sordid history. Whenever an airplane crashes, blame will inevitably need to be assigned. In a simplistic sense pilots are always at fault for crashes as their job is to prevent crashes. And save for unseen catastrophic mechanical failures, some measure of either commission or omission can always be laid at the feet of the pilots.

Plus they have the added advantage of usually being dead.

In any airline crash there will be political implications. Governments heavily regulate every aspect of airline operations down to the most picayune of minutiae. Every page of every manual we use is stamped with "FAA Approved". The irony of course is that to modify an old aphorism, those who can, fly and those who can't, work for the FAA.

I can't overstate how many feds have ridden my jumpseat who have difficulty having an intelligent conversation about aviation or the industry. They may know a few things such as the speed limit below 10,000 ft or will gladly bust you if the address on your medical certificate doesn't match the one on your license, but have little other clue about the operation. Don't get me wrong, most of them are very nice people but they are products of their environment. Their incentive is to get a guaranteed federal pension and it shows.

But there is probably no federal agency other than the FAA that is better at circling the wagons when under attack. Job one at any bureaucracy is of course organizational survival with the nominal mission being somewhat down the list. But should a plane crash, deflection of any possible critique of current policies and procedures becomes primary. Dead pilots, who are conveniently not available for testimony are outstanding candidates for this effort. Live ones fare little better save for flukes like Sully.

Then of course there is the airline itself. The sum total cost of any crash in today's litigious environment can easily top a billion dollars in liability and hanging all this on mistakes made by pilots may help to deflect corporate liability. This is especially true if the pilots are in violation of some corporate or FAA policy. And that is without exception always the case. By design.

When I started in aviation flying for the Air Force nearly 35 years ago, I found the aircraft manuals we used to be dense, convoluted, needlessly repetitive, and nearly useless. This I chalked up to military bureaucracy which was largely born out when to my delight I found the materials provided by the airline to be wonderful. They were clearly written with topical and situational logic. But that is changing. And it is clear that the change has little to do with aviation safety but rather a preemptive legal defense in the event of an accident.

Our manuals today resemble those old military manuals I so loathed. They are loaded with prescriptions and proscriptions so thick that it is nearly impossible to operate a flight and not be in violation of some arcane directive. Make no mistake, these directives have little or nothing to do with aviation safety but are the result of the ladling on of new requirements following each incident which happens in the industry today.

As an example, in 2006, Comair 5191 attempted a takeoff on a wrong runway in Lexington Ky resulting in a crash and fatalities at the end of the shorter runway. Determining the cause to be pilot error, the FAA issued a decree stating that all crew members must audibly verbalize the runway direction before takeoff in the belief that the 30 ft red and white painted numbers on the runway weren't enough in spite of no evidence that the rule would help rather than distract.

This is what's known as requiring everyone to wear diapers after just one person poops their pants. The point is that making a specific rule for every action in the aircraft merely drives non-compliance as every new incident or accident seems to result in another rule rather than relying on what used to be known as "airmanship" or judgement. Think of a 55 mph speed limit on the interstate. Everyone speeds and now the cops are free to pull over who they like.

So while manuals have become less useful for crews, they have become very useful for aviation lawyers for both the victims and the company following any accident as it can easily be shown that the pilot was in non-compliance with something somewhere. And if he was in non-compliance with the directive to say something at a particular time, lord knows what else he was slacking on. Case closed. Bad pilots.

But this time it's a little different. We may really have a bad pilot. And that can't be good because there's not really any cure. Publicly blaming this guy and calling it a day isn't really going to work because there's no way to keep it from happening again in the public's mind. And this situation demands that something be done. The question is what? Passing a new rule to not be nutters doesn't quite fill the bill.

Pilots are already some of the most highly scrutinized and closely monitored professionals working today. Commercial pilots are subject to physicals every six months and random no-notice alcohol and drug checks, in addition to working in close proximity to other pilots and crew on a daily basis. As pilots, we are always watching the other guy out of a sense of self preservation if nothing else. Most airlines' hiring processes include multiple interviews and usually include a personality inventory test to weed out the eccentrics. (Delta Airlines even used to require an actual interview with a shrink during hiring).

In short, it doesn't appear that anything can be done that is not already being done. Which isn't helping. If Captain Shah actually killed himself and his passengers in what could be the largest murder-suicide since 9/11, it was likely to embarrass the current government of Malaysia. And if that was his intent, he succeeded wildly.