Sunday, June 29, 2014

New Look

I've updated my blog template to make this blog a little easier to read. Let me know what you think.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Trouble in Automation Paradise

Holman Jenkins who writes the Business World column for the Wall Street Journal often uses his column to write about aviation issues. I suspect he may be a frustrated pilot, but he usually gets it right which is rare in journalism today.

In his latest column, he addresses the problems with the gradual replacement of humans by automation in systems previously controlled directly by humans. Specifically, the problem which is now showing up in aviation is that as reliance on automation increases and the scope of direct human involvement necessarily decreases, human competence will suffer.

In simpler language, sitting and watching the machine fly the airplane all day makes a pilot rusty.

The recent Asiana crash in San Francisco is an example of over-reliance on automation allowing skills to atrophy though I'd argue that the skills were never there to begin with:

Critics now insist Boeing should have included an alert or automatic override in case pilots might fly the plane into the ground using the tools Boeing gave them. That's a cop-out. The chief pilot later claimed "it was very difficult to perform a visual approach with a heavy airplane," according to the NTSB, which would seem to indicate the real problem: The crew was nonplused, perhaps nearly panicked, at the prospect of having to maintain a proper glidepath without help from the airport's sophisticated landing aid. 
Diligent annotators of this column will recall Captain Malcolm Scott from nearly a decade ago, who criticized a British Airways decision to ban manual thrust control (which Asiana's pilots should have employed to maintain the plane's airspeed) by its Airbus pilots. Flying skills would atrophy, he warned, suggesting that the industry's implicit goal was to remove the human factor from the cockpit altogether.

The question in the future design of aircraft automation is not where we'd like to go, completely automated aircraft control, but how do we get there? A straight line extrapolation of a diminishing role for real pilots doing real hands-on flying appears to be unwise. A rusty pilot thrown cold into a situation needing precise aircraft control such as when the automation unexpectedly fails is a recipe for disaster, let alone flying a routine visual approach as Asiana demonstrated.

If airlines are going to employ human pilots in any fashion who may be expected at some point to actually fly the airplane, they are going to have to be kept in practice by actually flying. This will mean requirements for regular and routine manual control of the aircraft. This is not the case today.

At such time that automation systems are robust enough to conclude that manual control of the aircraft will never be needed, pilots will be replaced by system operators who are not expected to have or maintain flying skills as none will be foreseeably needed. This point may be further in the future than many automation advocates envision.

While this problem of atrophying flying skills is not new and has been addressed in various aviation fora, I personally thought the problem was mostly confined third world carriers lacking a reservoir of experienced aviators upon which to draw as does Europe and the US. I have recently been disabused of this notion by several alarming events at a large domestic airline.

Several incidences of sub-optimal handling of airplanes on go-arounds were relayed to us during our latest training event. These events resulted in the aircraft being well out of accepted parameters for attitude, altitude, and airspeed resulting in a potentially hazardous outcome. While all the events resolved without incident, I had personally never heard of such gross mishandling of an aircraft by one of my fellow US aviators. Go-arounds, while requiring proper attention, are not difficult to accomplish.

Why now would problems be showing up in go-arounds? The answer may lie in this carrier's automation policies and equipment. Boeing makes an autopilot capable of fully flying an approach and should the need arise, to fly a perfect go-around while never being disengaged or requiring manual control of the aircraft.

For whatever reason, this particular airline chose to configure their system to have the autopilot dump full manual control into the pilot's hands right at the time the decision to go around is made. Choosing to go-around disconnects the autopilot just when the aircraft is at its lowest point in the approach at its slowest speed. Assuming the arrival and approach were flown using automation as is normal policy, being given a handful of airplane just when the pilot was expecting to land seems to me to be the wrong time for this to happen.

What actually happened on these incidents is known only to the safety investigators (and the pilots) but it does seem interesting that highly qualified aviators are making rookie mistakes like this just as automation becomes more pervasive.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Mighty C-5: A Story

I came across this video of a C-5 transport aircraft in a public affairs video making the rounds on YouTube. It's interesting because the airplane is from Travis AFB, my old base in northern Cali. I've even flown this particular aircraft on more than a few occasions. It sports tail number 60016, affectionately known as "Balls One Six", a B model aircraft if I remember correctly.

The flight takes off from Travis and then heads north over lake Berryessa, our old water ski lake. Lots of memories there. It then passes over Mt Lassen and on to the coast to fly past Mendocino and Pt. Reyes. The flight finishes as the plane passes over Vacaville and the fields of the central valley to land on runway 21R back at Travis. 

About midway through the flight is a demonstration of anti-missile flares. These are to be fired if an on-board system detects a missile launch. The heat in the flares is supposed to distract the heat-seeking missile into following them and not the heat from the aircraft engines. Smart engineers, though, can program the latest missiles to distinguish between the heat signatures of flares and that of the engines rendering the flares useless. Or if a radar guided missile is fired, there is no defense. 

The flare display does look pretty cool though, and it's been said in certain aviation circles that it's better to die than to look bad. Here's to looking good.

Notably in view on final approach is the Vacaville Sanitary Landfill, otherwise known as the dump. Besides having taken loads of refuse there, the dump is haven for thousands of seagulls and other birds. I'm guessing that the base, there since WWII, predates the dump. Birds and planes are uneasy partners in the sky and thousands of them nesting at a dump under final approach seems unwise though I never personally hit one.

After a few minutes of this video, boredom will probably set in for those not familiar with or emotionally attached to this airplane. After all it doesn't really do any tricks like a fighter. The real trick to this airplane though is its size. One of the largest aircraft ever built, it can carry objects as large as the M-1 battle tank weighing in at about 150,000 lbs or the Navy's DSRV rescue submarine clocking in at about 200,000 lbs.

I've carried both of those things and it is the loading and unloading that really boggles the imagination. Imagine a snake eating a bullfrog. You don't think it'll fit, but it does.

Flying the C-5

Flying Fred (our informal name for the C-5) was a real kick simply because it's so stinking big. Imagine driving a machine around that weighs nearly 3/4 of a million pounds. Those guys driving the gargantuan digging machines in strip mines might have a similar feeling but they're moving at several miles per hour while we were scooting around at .78 Mach.

The C-5 was a very forgiving aircraft to fly with it's relatively light wing loading and 25 degree wing sweep. A three axis stabilization system kept the airplane from wallowing around, and 24 main landing gear tires make setting this beast down gently a breeze.

For years, the Air Force wouldn't let pilots fresh out of pilot training be assigned to the aircraft for their first assignment. Only more seasoned second assignment pilots could get that job. The first pilot to get the C-5 right out of school was Frank P, who eventually became our commander at the 312th Airlift Squadron (USAF Reserve). Frank went on to do well in the USAF pinning on two stars as a general before retiring. American Airlines was probably wondering if he'd ever come back to fly for them.

The old girl did refuse, though, to be taken for granted and would take her revenge if not treated right. With a normal landing weight in the 600,000 lb range, quick adjustments on short final were not an option. Like an ocean liner, this aircraft does not turn on a dime and should a landing not be setting up just right, the best option was a go-around rather than wrestling with a lot of momentum 50 feet above the ground.

With the main landing gear hundreds of feet behind and below your seat, being the slightest bit low on approach could have disastrous results as several unlucky aviators discovered over the years. On at least two occasions, one in Oklahoma, and one on a remote island in the Aleutians, the aircraft landed just short of the runway and had a landing gear or two ripped from the fuselage. The Oklahoma accident resulted in the smash country hit "I lost my bogie in Muskogee"

Keeping Her in the Air

Systems-wise the aircraft was a plumbing nightmare. With four separate hydraulic systems, two APUs, both forward and aft opening cargo doors, six landing gear, 28 tires and brakes, optical and nitrogen fire detection and suppression systems, and checklists with titles like "Emergency Bogie Rotation (Normal Hydraulic Pressure Not Available)", keeping the beast in the air could be a real chore at times should things go wrong. Which they routinely did.

There was, however, only one "bold face" or emergency action item that was needed to be committed to memory for any system problem. That was to swing around in your seat and say "Engineer?"

Luckily, the airplane was crammed with redundancies and while it broke a lot, one could always hope that it would break in a place near a beach or at least a place with good per diem. We could even occasionally decide where the airplane would break by deciding when and where to enter the "defect" into the logbook thereby requiring a maintenance response. For some inexplicable reason, Hickam AB (Hawaii) probably saw more than its share of maintenance issues from transient aircraft.

General Honeybadger, Phil (the Thrill) and the Trip to Hell

One of my favorite stories is how we drug a beleaguered bird down to Australia and back. Well almost back. It was the wing commander's "finis" or last flight in the C-5 before retiring. The scheduler dangled the word "Aussie" in front of me as bait to take the trip somehow neglecting to mention that the general, his vice commander, a colonel, and an instructor, Lieutenant Colonel Phil (the Thrill) B. would be the crew. That made me, the major, the bag boy.

The plane started falling apart right away. The general, a bona-fide hero having won the medal of honor for valor in Viet Nam, was a real horses' ass. Winning that medal  back in the 70s made his career, guaranteeing him a star, and was also his last action of any significance. He took the landing in Pago Pago and hammered the jet onto the runway so hard that it was a small miracle that the oxygen masks didn't drop. I suspected that they'd been permanently sealed into their containers. Nice landing, sir. Must've been a gust!

So then the rear gear, which are supposed to caster during a turn wouldn't function properly. General Honeybadger didn't care. He just wrenched that thing around for a 180 on the runway as it was bucking like a bronco, the aft gear protesting over being drug sideways.

Next, a fuel gauge quit. No prob. Just watch the matching gauge on the other wing for a good estimate of the tank quantity. We get to Aussie-land and the general announces that he wants to go on with just Phil and himself to the next destination inland and back. So being left in Sydney, the colonel, a Delta captain and a decent sort, an engineer, and I take the general's car and go on a walkabout (okay, driveabout) to an interior national park. One of the perks of travelling with a general: you get a car.

Many hours after their scheduled departure time, we hear the unmistakable growl of Freddy's TF-39 motors as they climbed out of Richmond RAAF base near Sydney. Freddy apparently didn't like the general either.

Phil "Breaks" the Jet

The remainder of the trip was uneventful until we got back to Hickam AB in Hawaii. It was here that Phil decided that the airplane was "broken". OK, fair enough. Being in the Air Force Reserve means that most of us have airline jobs and fly for the Reserves a few times a month on days off. Phil, on the other hand, had no airline job and hence his only source of income was working part time for the Reserves. So by parking the airplane in Hawaii, Phil got to play golf in Honolulu on the government's dime until the jet is "fixed".

Now a few words about Phil. Think of a guy who is about maybe 55 but looks 75, single, smokes, drives a 1978 powder blue F-150 pickup and spends his spare time at the Moose lodge. I had nothing against him as he'd never been a wanker to me. He just personified old and broken down. And flying Freddy around for the reserves was as far as I could tell about all he had going on.

I honestly didn't have a problem with this situation. We would routinely piss away hundreds of thousands of dollars just filling the C-5 up with gas, so I couldn't begrudge the guy the few hundreds of dollars in per diem he might make playing golf. The general and the colonel, both very Busy and Important people with Important things to do, caught the next flight home and so it was just me and Phil left with our broken airplane. Our enlisted engineers and load masters were also happy to hang.

Stranded in Paradise

As was I. We managed to get assigned quarters off base which meant the Outrigger Reef on Waikiki beach. If you ever go, be sure not to miss the wet T-shirt contest held Sunday afternoons but also be aware that the pros always show up to win the pot. It's rigged.

So there we are, hanging in Waikiki, babysitting a broken jet with nothing to do. Phil hit the golf course and was not to be seen again. I, surveying the desolation of Hawaii in summer, spent a little time on the beach, a little time shopping, saw a movie and then spied a bike rental store. What a great idea. Rent a bike and tour the island.

They had a great selection which made it difficult to choose, but I soon picked out a cherry little Fatboy, put on a helmet and I was off. Oahu on a Harley. It was awesome. I rode the entire circumference of the island to include the not so pretty parts on the leeward side of the island where the workers live.

After a few days of entertaining myself, I began thinking about how I was going to get home. I knew that the jet wouldn't be fixed anytime soon. The particular defect that Phil had written up was the fuel gauge. This meant that a fuel cell team would be needed. None were at Hickam, so they'd have to be flown out from Travis. That took time.

Once the fuel cell team arrived, they'd have to drain the tank (and they are big), repair the fuel sending unit while wearing oxygen because of fumes, re-seal the unit, and then wait several days while the sealant cured. All guaranteed to take a week or more. We'd been in Hawaii for two or three days and I knew all this and assumed that Phil knew it too. I also had to get home to go to work. Real work. My job at the airline.

Really Stranded in Paradise

Being a reservist airline pilot means going to work at the base on days off from the airline. A traditional reservist might just work one weekend a month but when you are in a flying squadron, all the requirements that a full time active duty pilot has to maintain are also fulfilled by reserve pilots. This generally means about 8 to 15 days a month depending on the type aircraft flown. Most of this time can be fit into days off but on occasion, such as a 7 day Australia trip, airline flying has to be given up.

Public law mandates that civilian employers have to give reservists time off for military duty but of course don't have to pay them. I had dropped one airline trip to go on this Australia trip and while I do get paid by the military, it is less than airline pay so it does cost money. This is fine as flying the C-5 was a reward in and of itself and for a nominally good cause.

So I had already lost about 25% of my monthly pay and if I stayed any further in Hawaii, dropping another trip would be another quarter of my paycheck gone or half for the month. Look, I'm as patriotic as the next guy but contributing half my check to subsidize Phil's golf vacation was pushing my limit. So not being able to reach Phil (I had no cell phone in 1998) I simply left a message on his hotel phone and headed for Hickam to catch a ride home on another passing airplane.

Once at Hickam base operations, I located the crew of the jet I was jumping on, introduced myself to the aircraft commander and prepared to get home. Then an urgent message was relayed to me from the command post. Under no circumstances was Major Graves to get on any airplane leaving Hawaii. It was from Phil who would soon earn his moniker the "thrill". 

Frank Punts

Phil was annoyed that I had attempted to leave without contacting him. I refrained from reminding him that had he not broken the jet to play golf in Hawaii that we'd be home and besides, I did attempt to contact him. Nonetheless, I was not to leave until the jet was fixed which I knew would be a week or more. Arguing was futile so I got a room on base and called my commander, Frank, the wunderkind mentioned above.

Frank's a good guy but he's also a company guy. And by company guy, I mean in the tank for the Reserves. That's fine, but as a well known biblical figure once said, you cannot serve two masters. My thinking is that my livelihood and paycheck come from the airline. Being in the Air Force Reserve is a part time gig knowing that if called, it becomes a full time gig. That's the deal. I tried not to confuse the two, taking the time off when necessary, but also careful not to bite the hand that paid my mortgage.

I've never understood the sycophants, yes-men, empire builders, fast-burners, and climbers who resign from the active duty, join the Reserves, and then treat their Reserve job as their primary career while forcing their civilian employer under force of law to keep them around while they take massive amounts of time off. It doesn't make sense. Why didn't such people just stay on active duty?

So I call Frank and he tells me that if he lets me come home, he'll lose credibility with the enlisted when they want to come home but are needed. Never mind that they were all happily ensconced on the beach getting paid more than their civilian jobs. Well, other enlisted then. I said it'd be our little secret. No joy. I mentioned that I had to be at work Monday (this was Friday) but to no avail. He then made me a deal to let me come home Monday if the jet wasn't fixed. I knew it wouldn't be but decided to cut my losses, called the airline and gave up another quarter of my pay. For God and Country. Tool.

Fred Finally Makes It Home

All the following week, I called the command post at Travis to inquire whether our jet had made it home. It didn't get home until the following week. A gin-soaked Phil was probably camped at the 9th hole for most of that week but I sincerely hope he improved his handicap.

As for me, I was pretty hot about it all but decided that I wasn't going to let Phil nor Frank determine the trajectory of my Reserve career. I retired from the Reserves in 2002 after 21 years in the Air Force, Frank as I mentioned went on to impress his bosses in Iraq and get a couple of stars for his effort, while for all I know Phil can still be found driving his powder blue F-150 to the Moose lodge for the Saturday night pasta special.



Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The New Pilot Rest Regulations Are Making Me Tired

One thing that can be counted on as surely as death and taxes is the unintended consequences of good intentions. I firmly believe in the maxim that no good deed goes unpunished, and an excellent example of this is now on glorious display in the new FAA rest rules for pilots.

As I've mentioned in posts here and here, the decades old rules for determining the rest and duty requirements for airline pilots were recently updated. For years on the most wanted list for aviation safety improvements, the new Part 117 rules, as they're known (named for their subsection in the Code of Federal Regulations), replaced a much simpler set of rules known as the "30 in 7" rule. I say much simpler because 30 in 7 meant just that: 30 flight hours in 7 calendar days. It also included two other easily remembered rules, 100 hours in a month and 1000 hours in a year. Easy to remember, easy to apply.

The new rules as befitting any product of bureaucratic sausage making multiple stakeholder input, now involve complicated charts and tables instead of easy to remember time limits. Also included are rolling windows of 168 hours and 672 hours needed to calculate both flight hour limits and "FDP" or flight duty period limits. This as opposed to just using a week or month as in the old rules. The charts and tables reference your report time translated from where you actually are into your home or "domicile" time, your projected and past duty time, your projected and past flight time and your projected number of flight segments. In short, it's a minefield.

Calculating whether or not you are legally tired per the new rules is guaranteed to put you to sleep as you need to fill out a complicated spreadsheet to figure it all out. This is of course impossible to do as you're pre-flighting your aircraft and checking the weather. The company, realizing this, has installed a convenient software tool you can use right after you wrestle the gate agent away from their computer used to scan boarding passes. Good luck.

The other big change in the rules is that if your schedule was legal when you started your day, you were legal to finish your day regardless of delays (up to a point). The new rules don't allow for such rare occurrences as airport delays, and should a pilot be projected to exceed a time limit due to a departure delay,  he must taxi back to the gate and shut down regardless of how actually tired he may feel.

Remember that any time a pilot really feels fatigued for any reason, all airlines have a no fault fatigue policy whereby the pilot gets replaced and pay protected.

But the last and best unintended consequence of the new rules is that because they give the airline less flexibility to cover the schedule, more pilots have had to have been hired and the schedules that are being written work longer days than I've seen in 24 years. One compromise made in crafting the new rules was to allow an increase in flight time from 8 to 9 hours.

I had one of those days yesterday. Starting out in LAX, we were to fly to Atlanta,  New Orleans and then Chicago. The day was planned for 8:35 of flight time to be done in a duty day of 10:50. When we got to Atlanta, the airport was briefly closed due to a storm which required holding and several runway changes before landing.

Like a freeway jam that persists after an accident is cleared, we were delayed getting airborne again as we waited in the conga line for takeoff for about 45 minutes. These two delays put us within striking distance of our 9 hour flight time limitation.

Upon powering up my cell phone in New Orleans, I got a message from scheduling requesting a call to discuss our time limits. We had flown 6:50 up to that point which left 2:10 hrs left while our flight to Chicago was planned at 2:05. This left us with only 5 minutes of slop before we'd be mandated to strand 143 passengers in New Orleans because the government said we were tired. We both felt fine.

So we blast off and immediately get a reroute due to thunderstorms along the Mississippi valley. No big problem as it only added about 5 minutes additional flying time. I was properly incentivized to be on time as my commute flight home left only an hour after our scheduled arrival and we were late.

In another small favor from the aviation gods, the airport was turned around to allow for a straight-in approach shaving a few precious minutes. Then as per usual when running for a commute flight, our gate was occupied.

This is the cosmic pimp. You might run on time for the whole trip but have to hold out for a gate when it's your own commute home. It's even better if you have to hold out for your own commuter flight, especially if it's the last one of the night.

Then a miracle happened.

We were assigned another nearby open gate. This almost never happens. Moving hundreds of people to a new gate to board usually results in mass chaos and so is rarely done. But I didn't ask twice and drove the beast to the new parking spot having to wait for surprised ramp workers not expecting a jet to appear.

Were phone calls made by our dispatch? There's no way to know but it's certainly plausible.

Then after shutdown, it took several minutes to get an agent to bring the jetway up. In the meantime, the door is still closed meaning our automatic time reporting system is still logging time.

Finally the door gets popped, the ACARS system logs us "in" and what does our accumulated block time read? 2:10 which made our total time for the day right at 9:00. It was the longest amount of flight time I've ever logged in one day in commercial aviation. Another minute would have meant a report to the FAA.

So all's well but you, dear reader, are probably wondering if pilots are now less tired as a result of the new rules. I wouldn't bet on it. During certain irregular operations the 10 hour minimum rest rule (an increase over the previous 8) will help but overall I didn't see a problem that needed fixing.

One change that is for certain is that your flight is now more likely to be cancelled during delays due to your pilot becoming illegal under the new rules regardless of his desire to fly you.

As for me, I never sleep well in hotel rooms so little has changed.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

A Pilot's Perspective

The other day the wife and I decided we'd like to host a 4th of July party in our back yard. We have a nice yard and pool and thought many of the neighbors, especially those without pools would like to come by for some cool malted beverage and smoked beast.

I made up some invites and sent them out to folks on our block via email. Nearly all came back with regrets. Everyone was going to be at the beach, an 8 hour drive from here. It seems the thing to do in Tennessee on July 4th is to get out of Tennessee. I guess this is understandable considering how hot it gets but here's where I part company with my "civilian" neighbors.

I honestly think I'd rather have my teeth drilled than to go somewhere like the beach on a holiday weekend. Trying to get on an airplane on such a weekend just gives me the tin foil on your fillings willies. Thank God for people who want to do it, but I'll pass on the crowds, TSA cavity searches, middle seats, lines, and over priced everything.

If going anywhere these days, I'd much prefer a road trip but 16 hours of road for a weekend trip is pushing my diminishing returns limits.

Look, travel is fun, but weekend travel when the rest of the world is trying to do the same thing seems to be defeating the whole point.

This is the perspective of someone who travels for a living. No thanks.