Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Does Falling Asleep at the Controls Make You a Bad Pilot?

A Delta 767 gets intercepted by Greek F-16s after comm loss.
Delta 767 and Greek F-16s in formation.

Not necessarily, though it might very well make you a dead pilot if you were in a single pilot aircraft such as an F-16 or Cessna. But as far as airliners go, if the pilots take a snooze at altitude with the autopilot flying, the airplane stays on course and airspeed. Falling asleep is a physiological incident which can be due to many different reasons, but one thing it is not, is a moral failing. Let me explain.

In a recent event over Greek airspace, a Delta Airlines 767 flying a charter for the US military entered Greek airspace and did not check in with air traffic control. The Greeks then launched two F-16s which intercepted the airliner about 40 minutes after it entered into Greek airspace. Shortly after the intercept, the aircraft reestablished communications with air traffic control and proceded onto its destination of Kuwait.

There have been some unsubstantiated reports in Greek media that the fighter pilots saw the airline pilots unresponsive in their seats. The reports also claim that it was calls from the flight attendants who noticed the intercept which alerted the pilots to the situation.

Delta, for its part, reported that the aircraft couldn't make contact with Greek controllers after their handoff from a previous sector. That's plausible, though losing communications in an extremely busy part of the world for 40 minutes does seem unlikely. Maybe 5 or 10, but 40 is more difficult to swallow.

They Want You to Lose Communication

A little known fact is that many jurisdictions around the world actually love it when an airliner from a wealthy nation flies into their airspace without making contact. They then get to launch an intercept or search and rescue (SAR) forces and then send the bill to whoever has the deepest pockets. That would be Delta and the US government in this case.

Notice that it only took 18 minutes from the time the airliner entered Greek airspace to the launch of the fighters. There are rumors around that Greece itself is in some financial straits. They're smelling a payday. Sure there are legitimate reasons to intercept a comm-out airliner in today's crazy terrorist besotted world, but money also makes a good motivator as well. Win-win I suppose.

At any rate, any pilots worth their salt flying in this part of the world must know that going comm-out while crossing a flight identification region (FIR) boundary while bound for the Middle East will not be good.

So what other reason might there be?

They Were Snoozing (Maybe)

The nature of this job is many days and time zones away from home, back side of the clock flying, lousy diet, and hotel beds which only get the straw changed every other year. I jest about the straw beds, but I often feel like I've slept on one as my back will let me know when trying to roll out of bed. 

My point is that getting a reasonable amount of sleep on the road is a serious challenge, and that is if everything goes right. A noisy or inop air conditioner, maids knocking on the door early in the morning after a late night arrival or my personal favorite, hammer drills in a nearby room from construction crews can make a good night of sleep nearly impossible.

Even though most airlines have good fatigue policies which allow pilots to decline a flight with no sanction, there is no guarantee that halfway through a flight which you felt fine to start that you won't simply find it impossible to keep your eyes open. This can be in the middle of the day, perhaps right after lunch while sitting on the sunny side of the jet.

Do you do what you can to prevent this? Sure. Get up and stretch, get a cup of coffee, or take a restroom break. Even after all that you might still be droopy. So it is by far from implausible that this happened to both of the guys or gals up front.

Are They in Trouble?

No, they are not. As I mentioned above, falling asleep is a physiological incident and not a moral failing. There will be no scene from 12 O'clock High with Gregory Peck chewing out a guard who has fallen asleep at his post. What will happen is the crew will fill out various safety and fatigue reports (if that indeed is what happened) and life will go on. And if it was merely a case of lost comm, mostly the same thing will happen.

Their reports will go into a safety database where de-identified safety data will hopefully guide any policy changes which need to be made. Yea, that may be somewhat idealistic, but the point is the crew will live to fly another day.

And as I always brief to my copilots, I never want to wake up and find them sleeping! (Just kidding!)

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Egyptair 804

Egyptair 804 was lost over the Mediterranean Sea
Egyptair A320

Egyptair 804 disappeared over the Mediterranean Sea last week. The aircraft, an Airbus A320, was carrying 56 passengers and 10 crew when it vanished from radar screens at about 2:30 am local time (00:30Z). There were no survivors.

While recovery of the wreckage is underway, the only other notable factor concerning the accident was a flurry of automated maintenance messages received from the aircraft shortly before its disappearance.

The system, known as Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS), is used to send data messages about the operational and mechanical status of an airliner to the company for various uses. For instance, when you bring up the arrival status of your flight on your phone, that exact arrival time is derived from data sent over ACARS. The system also sends maintenance status reports to help track the mechanical status of the aircraft and also to alert ground maintenance personnel of impending problems.

This system sent the following messages:

00:29Z 2200 AUTO FLT FCU 2 FAULT
00:29Z 2700 F/CTL SEC 3 FAULT
no further ACARS messages were received.

These messages indicate that smoke was detected by the lavatory and avionics smoke detectors and that the window heat computer detected an overheat condition. The avionics bay is an area below the cockpit where most of the aircraft's computers and radios are located. What these messages mean when taken together is anyone's guess. They could possibly indicate the presence of an onboard fire or might only indicate multiple erroneous inputs from a failure of the reporting system.

At this point no determination can be made about the nature of the malfunctions or their origins. This will no doubt have to wait until the data and voice recorders are recovered. This recovery effort is underway.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

How to Dodge a Thunderstorm and Not Spill Your Coffee

Very few aircraft will survive an encounter with one of these big guys
They have big teeth too!

Well it's spring. It is a time when, according to Tennyson, a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love. Being an old grizzled coot firmly in the grip of matrimony for more than a score of years now, my fancy begrudgingly turns instead to the spring return of every pilot's nemesis, the thunderstorm.

I fondly recall a time years ago while sitting in Air Force ground school in Lubbock, Texas. The instructor drew a shape on the board and asked us students to identify the shape. It looked like the state of Texas which some brave soul ventured to point out. The instructor corrected him with a shouted "NO". "That," he exclaimed, "is an airborne emergency!"

His meaning was that flying in the state of Texas in the spring meant doing battle with, or rather attempting to avoid doing battle with the towering giants which would daily sweep across the panhandle. Because even today, with all of our technology and shiny fast moving flying machines, there is still virtually no airplane that can survive a thunderstorm penetration. And I'm including everything from fighters to helicopters to especially airliners in this category.

But wait, you cry! How about those hurricane hunter planes? Aren't hurricanes worse than thunderstorms? Actually no, they're not. At least not in an airplane. A hurricane can certainly muss your hair while airborne, but they are mostly lower altitude phenomena and have limited vertical development. There may be thunderstorms embedded in a hurricane which the hunter aircraft are careful to avoid, but overall, nothing on earth can match the fury of a well developed hammer-headed storm reaching to over 50,000 ft.

Ok, but can't we just fly over them? No, again. Most airliners can only climb up to the low 40s whereas I mentioned above, a large storm can easily reach to 50k. Even should the storm be a "smaller" one and top out in the 30s, the area above the storm can be quite turbulent as the storm grows and should hail get ejected out of the top of one of these babies, that's exactly where you'll find it. So no, going over a developing cumulonimbus is never a good idea. It is always best to avoid a storm laterally.

Wandering into one of these bad boys will easily make the top of your list of worst things to happen in an airplane. The gusts from violent up and down drafts will produce severe turbulence and the volume of rain your engines will swallow can easily put the fire out. An encounter with hail will scratch your shiny paint job just microseconds before it permanently bashes your radome and the leading edges of your wings into a very non aerodynamic shape. And that is if your windshield doesn't shatter.

Thunderstorms are to be avoided at all cost.

Houston to Chicago

Our trip had us returning from an international destination to be followed by the last leg to Chicago. Then we were done. My F/O lived in base so he was just going home while due to the late arrival time, I was going to the crash pad to be followed by an early morning flight home. We parked the jet at the international terminal, cleared customs and went to look for some dinner before meeting another jet in the domestic terminal. My F/O was diverted away from the automated kiosk into the longer line to an agent for some reason so I'd catch up with him later.

My big decision now became where to eat. The oriental place is good but expensive, while the Mexican place had a long line. I opted for Subway. Nothing like living on airport food. The other option is to carry a food bag, which many crew members do, but an international flight means no fresh food can pass. Little wonder that so many airline pilots are fat. (That's my story, and I'm sticking to it!)

I made a quick trip by the pilot lounge and then went to the gate to meet the incoming aircraft. We were supposed to push at 8:00 pm but the board said the flight was expected out at 8:25. It pulled into the gate dutifully at 7:50 meaning that this was planned for a 35 minute turn. We used to do these in as little as 15 or 20 minutes, but the planes are bigger and people are slower and carry more stuff to stow, hence the 35 minute turn.

Weather Reroute

The reason I stopped by the pilot lounge was to get a wifi signal to update the weather app on my iPad. The company spent a ton of money to give us all iPads with a comprehensive weather app. The only problem is that it's useless without a wifi connection, and we're not allowed to use the onboard wifi. This makes the whole thing quite useless for weather. Rumor has it that this will change soon but I'm not holding my breath.

What I did see during my brief lounge visit was that a large system of thunderstorms was camped out just east of the Mississippi river valley, stretching from perhaps eastern Arkansas up to southern Michigan. I guessed that this meant that we were not going to be flying the most direct route. It turns out I was correct.

When I got the flight plan, it showed that we were going to take a very circuitous route to Chicago. We were routed north over Oklahoma City and then to Omaha followed by Fort Dodge, IA at which point we'd make a turn to the east. I don't know if our dispatcher came up with this route by himself or whether it was given to him by air traffic control, but it was what we were given.

What we were also given was a ton of fuel. The normal route should take about two hours, but this roundabout route was going to be 2+45. The 737 burns about five thousand pounds an hour, plus we have to have our required reserves of 45 minutes of extra gas. On top of that we had gas for two alternates listed as Detroit and Columbus, and also extra fuel in case we had to hold. All of that fuel added up to about 27 thousand pounds.

Now it has been said that the only time you've got too much fuel on board is if you are on fire. While true, having too much fuel when you're trying to land on a short runway in bad weather can be a problem as well. More gas means a heavier airplane. And the Chicago weather was forecast to be ok for our arrival, but thunderstorms were threatening. Another limitation is our structural landing weight limit. There is an upper weight limit for landing that must be met. Carrying too much fuel might put us above that limit in which case we'd have to burn it off or divert. 737s cannot dump fuel like many other aircraft.

The dispatcher put a note on the release to pump us up to 29 thousand pounds if other limits were met, but come push time, the extra fuel never showed up. I was fine going without it as we were planned to land with 12 thousand pounds, about double what we normally have on landing.

Off We Go!

After a last minute runway change requiring new takeoff data, we blasted off at about 8:45. The sun had set and there was a beautiful blue orange glow to the west. Also visible was a rather large storm several hundred miles distant. It turned out to be over central Texas but we could see it perfectly from Houston. Air traffic control stopped our climb at 37,000 feet, 2000 feet shy of our planned 39,000 ft. I assumed that this was due to other traffic conflicts.

My hat is off to the controllers who must not only keep all the airplanes separate, but who must also thread all their traffic through a constantly shifting map of storms. As an additional challenge, their radar systems do not show weather very well. They rely upon pilots to tell them where they can and cannot go. It's crazy, but I have apps on my phone that have better weather readouts than that.

We watched the lights of the Dallas Metroplex go by followed by Ok City and Kansas City off to our right. Prior to getting to Omaha we were cleared to cut the corner to Fort Dodge. It was at this point that things started getting funky. We were first cleared one arrival over Joliet, and then quickly by another arrival farther to the north. Finally, the controller just gave us a northeasterly heading and a descent.

Storms were approaching Chicago from the west and were closing the normal arrival routes. Controllers have to get very creative when this happens. We were lucky that our arrival was so late as the traffic flows were diminished. Had this happened during peak arrival times, we would likely have held or diverted. The new plan was to take us in north of the city, over the lake and south to Midway. The controller's challenge was to get us across the arrival traffic going into O'Hare. For this he had us expedite our descent to below their arrivals.

I was also thinking about my possible options should Midway get hit by a storm. One of our alternates, Columbus, was already being hit by a storm but Detroit was still good. Since we were only a few miles south of Milwaukee by this point, I checked the weather there. Their visibility was only 1/8th of a mile which made that not a great choice. Behind us, though, was Minnie which had good weather.

Like a quarterback, you're always keeping an eye on your open receivers while you avoid the linebackers.

Smooth as Butter!

We got fussed at several times to expedite our descent below the O'Hare arrival corridor. The problem is that to increase descent, one must increase airspeed by pointing the nose lower. We were also getting the poop knocked out of us by turbulence, and our turbulence airspeed is only 280 kts. So we do the best we can to get down without beating ourselves or our passengers up too much.

Once we were below the bumps and over the lake we broke out of the weather and everything smoothed out. We were given a turn to the south and enjoyed a beautiful view of downtown Chicago from the north which we almost never see. After passing downtown we were given a vector to the downwind to runway 4R at Midway. 

Abeam the airport the controller cut us loose and cleared us for the visual. This rarely happens any more and I used the opportunity to hand fly the approach just like we always did in years gone by. Off went the autopilot and autothrottles. My flying skills may get a little rusty when using all the magic day after day, but the rust knocks right off and I rolled out on glidepath right at a thousand feet fully configured.

The aviation gods smiled upon me because I had one of the best touchdowns at Midway that I've had in a long time. The runways are short, so you normally just try to not land long and accept whatever kind of touchdown you can manage.

Well, we taxied clear, contacted ground and the company to let them know we were there, and of course, as day follows night, after a long day and delays, we have to hold out for our gate. Then we get assigned another gate, then back to yet a third gate, and then we wait for marshallers to guide us in. The important point here to remember is that if you shut down an engine, you will then likely be required to turn into your running engine. Think of trying to turn left on ice when only your left rear tire is turning. It doesn't want to go.

Anyway, we get it shut down, I even get a compliment about the landing, and then it's off to the crash pad for about four hours of shuteye before my flight home. Well as they say, it's hard work, but it still beats working for a living.

Dodging thunderstorms for fun and profit

Sunday, May 01, 2016

How to Fly with a Jerk

Yea, they're out there. The perfectionists, the disgruntled, the narcissists and especially the ones who are going to teach you the "proper" way to fly. Spend enough time in the front of an airliner and sooner or later you will be paired to fly with a jerk. Short of calling in sick, you will have to spend the next several days locked in a closet sized space for hours on end with the south side of a northbound horse.

So how will you cope? Remember that you have an important job to do and to do it well, you have to work with the other pilot. There was a time when the standard method of dealing with a jerk was to simply not deal with him or her. This could've meant each pilot scanning the 10 or 2 o'clock positions permanently while never interacting save for required checklist callouts.

That strategy clearly has drawbacks and can seriously degrade safety. There's a reason that airliners still have two pilots (for now). You're a professional even if the other guy or gal is less so, and the folks in back are counting on both pilots up front to conduct themselves as such. With all that in mind, here's the Captain's guide to surviving a pairing with a jerk! (Me included.)

Don't Keep It to Yourself

I think that most people are generally conflict averse. I know I am. Most of us don't go around looking for a fight or trying to cause trouble, especially on the job. We want to get through our day, finish with zero airspeed at the correct gate and go to the hotel. So when a situation crops up that causes us some consternation, a first reaction may be to just keep it to ourselves. After all we place a high value on good cockpit relations and rationalize that some internal discomfort is not too high a price to maintain a cordial cockpit atmosphere.

Don't fall for this rationalization. It is built on a fallacy. For starters, if the other guy is doing something that bothers you, he may not even realize it. Secondly, your discomfort won't go away. It will only fester and get worse. Trust me on this. And if you keep your feelings to yourself for any length of time, it can get really awkward when you finally do speak up. It is always best to get things off of your chest as early as possible.

Don't Ever Accept Non-Standard Operation

Again, there may have been a time in the distant past where the Captain was omnipotent and not to be questioned no matter what he did, even if it fell outside of standard operating procedures (SOP). Those times are absolutely long gone. You have a legal and moral duty to make sure that the aircraft is always operated by the book. Does this mean that you must become a pecksniff and point out every deviation no matter how minor? No it does not; there is a middle ground between being a bag of sand in the seat and what we sometimes refer to as a "check F/O".

Getting back to the professionalism part, when the aircraft is operated in a non-standard fashion and something bad happens, claiming that the other guy was flying is of course no defense. My advice is to predetermine your own personal boundaries and then stick to them. You'll sleep better at night. If push comes to shove, which it hopefully never will, take the airplane if you must, and after landing grab your gear and get off the airplane. This will of course involve scheduling and chief pilots but your career is worth it.

And I want to add a note here about bringing in third parties to a dispute. I believe in handling conflict personally whenever possible. The outside resources available to you are your union's professional standards people and your chief pilot. The first thing either of these people will ask is whether you discussed the matter with the other person. If you reply in the negative, your credibility drops. Nobody will care about your issue more than you, so start there. 

The pro standards folks and (most) chiefs are great, but my thoughts are that if the guy you're flying with is that big of a jerk, the pro standards folks are probably already well acquainted with him. Taking an issue to a chief pilot should be an absolute last resort. You don't want to be known as the guy who runs to management with a personality conflict. Gross or continued non-standard flying? Maybe. Just be ready to defend your actions.

Sometimes You Have to Just Suck it Up

I personally like to let my F/Os fly the airplane any way they'd like as long as it is within SOP, but that's just me. Some cappies like to dictate how the plane should be flown or how a system should be operated. According to most airlines' procedures and FARs, they are within their rights to have it done the way they want it done, again as long as it is within SOP.

As an F/O, you learn to become a chameleon and do it the way the boss likes it to be done. For instance, in the age old argument of whether or not to run the packs on high on a hot day in a 737, everyone has an opinion. But if the guy in the left seat has a preference, his vote is the one that counts. Hopefully he will be willing to listen to your reasons. If not, there's not much that can be done until you upgrade yourself.

My airline has a "bid avoidance" feature that can be used by F/Os to avoid people with whom they really don't want to fly, but it comes with the price of subrogating their own seniority. This feature didn't exist when I was in the right seat so the "suck it up" or "talk it out" methods were all that were available. It did, though, in some measure force people to get along to some degree.

Take a Look in the Mirror

If you find that you seem to end up having more than a few tiffs in the cockpit, then perhaps the problem doesn't lie with the other guy. If it seems to you that everyone you fly with is a pig-headed jerk, then that may become a clue for you. I think this advice is especially useful for captains. F/Os are naturally inclined to become chameleons, so if you find that your cockpit has a tense atmosphere or you spend a lot of time eating alone in the hotel, perhaps some introspection is merited.

Captains, on the other hand, really get very little feedback. Some are conscientious enough to ask how they're doing, but many are not. Most people with a blind spot are unaware that they have one, which is why my above advice to not keep things to yourself may be more useful than first thought.

Do I have war stories about conflict in the cockpit? Yes I do. I think conflict of some sort with another pilot is inevitable given enough time. My personal technique is to try to not bring up topics which might be touchy such as union issues or politics. I'll talk about that stuff all day long if it comes up, but it is much easier to "kick someone's anthill over" when discussing those things as opposed to Da Bears. And I'm not a huge sports fan, but being at least somewhat conversant in sports can be helpful.

In Conclusion

Unlike many other workplace environments, a cockpit is an especially bad place for conflict. Both pilots must make an effort to recognize and to quarantine conflict. Getting things on the table early and using techniques such as humor can go a long way to defuse the bad feels. Pilots aren't necessarily known for being great "people people" but getting along up front should be considered as essential a skill as maintaining airspeed on final.

 Of course, I always get to fly with my favorite jerk.