Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Back in the Metro Days....

This month I bid a regular line instead of composite or reserve. One of the side effects is that I'll be flying with the same captain for most of the bid. Fortunately, the guy I'm paired up with this month is a good captain and a nice guy that I get along with. He skis, flies a Stearman he restored himself, and happens to be a good storyteller. Yesterday he was telling me stories from "the Metro days," when our airline's workhorse was the SA-227 Metroliner. Many of the stories were hilarious and demonstrated just how gentrified regional flying has become. The following is my favorite story, which put me in tears. It actually happened to Ron, the captain I'm flying with.

Ron was flying a trip with "RD," a captain reknown for his unpopularity with FO's. He had a reputation for being rude to FO's, doing things abruptly without saying what he was doing, extreme overcaution alternating with impulsiveness, and just overall weirdness. Ron was a very junior FO when this incident took place, and couldn't avoid flying with RD.

Ron and RD were in the middle of their trip, on a leg from Spokane to Boise. They were at altitude, in cruise, when RD suddenly sat upright and in an alarmed voice, told Ron to "call Lewiston!"

Ron was perplexed at the request, so he asked why. "Because we have to land there!" was the reply, without further explanation. Ron probed further until RD expounded, sort of: "I was bit by a spider last week. I don't feel well!"

Ron was taken aback, but at RD's continued insistence, called Lewiston station. It turned out, however, that there was an airshow taking place and the airport was closed. "Call Pullman, then," RD commanded. Now, they were already past Lewiston; Pullman was an even longer backtrack. Pullman station confirmed that they could handle the diversion, but then Dispatch came on frequency, wanting to know what was going on. RD jumped on the radios: "A member of the crew isn't feeling well." He was very quick to clarify that he wasn't declaring an emergency. Dispatch pressed for the exact nature of the illness, until RD relented:

"I was bit by a spider."

"Oh. When?"

"Um...last week."

"Well, if it's not an emergency," said the dispatcher, "you'd be able to go past Pullman and land back in Spokane, right?" RD consented.

"Look, Boise is just as close as Spokane," Ron pointed out. "Why don't we just continue and get these people to their destination, and then you can call in sick?" RD steadfastly refused:

"No, we're going back, and that's final."

The moment the engines were shut down in Spokane, RD grabbed his bag and bolted from the airplane, leaving his flabbergasted FO to explain the situation to 19 angry passengers. After that, Ron had to deal with dispatch, crew scheduling, and then the chief pilot, all of whom wanted to know what happened, and where did RD go? The hospital? Ron had no idea: RD hadn't said a word after they turned towards Spokane. It turned out that RD had ran upstairs to jumpseat home on another carrier, without saying a word to anybody, much less a simple sick call.

Of course, the story quickly spread around the airline and only added to RD's notoriety and reputation for weirdness. The story got considerably funnier when another FO who had suffered under RD got the idea of buying a large bag of fake plastic spiders from a hobby store and leaving them wherever RD might encounter them: in his mailbox, in his flight bag, in the cockpit, even in his hat! It continued relentlessly for weeks; RD was absolutely furious. He assumed Ron was behind it and accused him several times; Ron had to beg the prankster to cut it out!

Eventually the notoriety of the "Spider Incident" died out, mainly because RD went on to out-do himself with other exploits.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

My Hot Saturday Night Date

The heavy laden ship lurched to a halt on the tarmac and the engines whirred down into silence. Passengers scurried across the wet pavement, their breaths misting the cold night air. Rainy in Portland in November? That's no great surprise. I was, however, caught off guard by finding myself with a free Saturday night. It'd been a long time. What to do? The possibilities stretched out before me. I shivered with anticipation as I unplugged my headset. And then I saw her.

She looks like trouble, I thought. The brunettes usually are. She was wearing a trench coat and an aloof look. I caught sight of a clipboard. This dame means business, I realized. Could she be looking for me? She soon answered my question by poking her head into the cockpit. "Are you Sam?" she asked breathlessly. I hesitated. Should I reveal my identity to the Mystery Woman? In all honesty, I couldn't lie. Not to a brunette with a clipboard, anyways. "Come with me," she commanded as she turned to go with a flip of her hair. I dutifully followed behind.

Who is this woman? And where is she taking me? The questions swirled through my head. My Saturday night had taken a turn towards the unexpected. What did this mysterious beauty have in mind? Could it be a trap? I needed answers.

I caught up to her and grasped her arm. "Hey Miss! Listen, what's the idea here? You ain't said boo since we left the plane. What's goin' on, anyways?"

She turned to me with an expression that bordered between amusement and contempt, and then her features softened and she spoke softly: "You mean you really haven't any idea? Didn't anyone tell you? We have a very special appointment tonight." She saw that I still wasn't following her drift, so she leaned towards me and whispered: "You're going to pee in a cup for me."

Suddenly it all made sense. This was no chance meeting; this was destiny! We were meant to come together! It was written in the stars and in 14 CFR §121.457! My doubts evaporated into thin air as I felt a familiar tingle of excitment. It'd been a long time since anybody had asked me to pee in their cup. And suddenly, out of the blue, this wonderful, mysterious woman came into my life....

She ushered me into her office and beckoned for me to sit down. I settled into a plush office chair opposite her and gazed into her dark eyes. She smiled and started speaking softly but evenly.

"We'll need a urine sample of at least 45 ml. It will be split into two specimens, one for the lab to analyze and the second to be retained in case of a positive. This form identifies you by employee number only. Put your contact information in Section Five in case the Medical Review Officer needs to contact you. One copy of this form goes with the specimen, one copy is for the Medical Review Officer, one is for my records, one is for the company, and you retain the last copy."

I was spellbound by her melodious voice as she explained chain of custody to me. Sure, I'd heard it all before from all sorts of dames, but never like this! She spoke like she really believed it. If I had to pinpoint the moment I really fell hard, it'd be when she demonstrated the specimen sealing procedure.

She offered me a drink. I asked for my usual snifter of bourbon, but she suggested that wasn't appropriate given the circumstances. The dame had a point. I drank Talking Rain spring water instead.

The rest of the evening is a blur. I remember her taping off the water sources in the washroom, which offends me a little. Did she trust me so little as to think I'd dillute my urine? I could never do that to her! I remember her turning the toilet bowl a beautiful cobalt blue. I remember missing her dearly when she left the washroom for me to do the deed. And I will always cherish the moment afterwards when she split the specimen and swiftly sealed both vials.

All too soon, our time together was over. I spent the rest of my Saturday night at home savoring the memories over a glass of Wild Turkey. She promised me that she'd see me again. Was she simply masking her perfidy? Lots of women have promised lots of things to me over the years. I'd like to believe she really meant it, and our meeting wasn't just a meaningless encounter. Time will tell. In the meantime, I'll end every trip with the anticipation of spying a woman on the ramp with a clipboard and a test cup.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Whistler, B.C.

Ski season is here! Storms over the last two weeks have dumped prodigious amounts of snow on the Cascades, and most of the ski resorts opened this weekend or are opening in a few days. Whistler-Blackcomb, in British Columbia's South Coast Mountains, opened on Saturday. I had some two-for-one vouchers from a recent Warren Miller film screening, and my parents were in town, so we decided to make a roadtrip of it. It was my Dad's first time skiing; Dawn and my Mom decided to skip the skiing part and proceed directly to Apr├ęs-ski.

We decided to drive rather than fly into Vancouver. On Friday night we got as far as Bellingham, and early Saturday morning we drove across the border, through Vancouver, and up the beautiful Sea-To-Sky Highway into Whistler. My dad and I were on the slopes before 10am.

For those who are unfamiliar, Whistler-Blackcomb is the biggest (and many claim the best) ski area in North America. There are two mountains of over 5000 lift-served vertical feet each, for a combined 8000 acres and well over 100 named runs. With such a vertical extent, the climate can vary greatly from base to peak. Indeed, on Saturday the bottom 1100' of Whistler Mountain were closed due to slushy, inadequate snow, and the top 1100' were closed due to avalanche danger. Blackcomb Mountain was closed altogether. The remaining 2800' of Whistler were more than adequate for our one day outing.

The beginner ski area was also closed (low elevation, slushy snow) so I decided to teach Dad on the easiest green run from Roundhouse Station (6000') to Olympic Station (3200'). Whistler's green trails turned out to be steep enough in places to qualify as an intermediate run at many other resorts, so there were a lot of fast riders whizzing around us. It wasn't a great place to teach someone to ski for the first time. We took it easy and took about two hours to descend 2800 vertical feet.

I discovered that I'm a horrible ski instructor. Dad was halfway down the mountain before I realized he was putting himself off balance by planting the wrong pole prior to turns. Correcting that detail helped a lot, to where he was doing a good job linking turns by the bottom, but by that time he was absolutely spent from all the falls he took. We took the gondola back down to the village to have lunch with Dawn and Mom, and then Dad decided to call it a day. I headed back up the mountain to run some laps before the lifts closed. It was a good first outing of the season, I put on some decent vertical and woke up some muscles that've been disused. I felt it the next day.

The area around Whistler is gorgeous; Dawn and I are planning on going back later this season and perhaps staying a few days longer. I'd like to try the Peak-to-Creek run when the whole mountain is open; at 5000' vertical that should be a real thigh burner!

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Meeting of the Blogger Buds

I met another aviation blogger last Friday night: GC of RantAir. He was here on a (rather short) layover, so I met him for dinner near his crew hotel. Dawn came with to ensure I didn't whip out my camera and photograph his legs. He turned out to be a very nice, laidback guy. Not that I was expecting him to be a freakin' weirdo or anything. His airline has a reputation for hiring nice laidback guys (and gals), and GC fits right in there, I think.

GC was the first guy to leave a comment on my blog, and link to my blog. These days he's pretty busy, so he doesn't update as much as many other bloggers, but I still enjoy his mix of flying, aviation news, sports, and politics - so he stays at the top of my blogroll.

Anyways, it's been fun meeting fellow aviation bloggers Aviatrix and GC. If anybody else is going to be spending any time in the PDX area, let me know. There's always about a 2/5 chance that I'll be home!

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Otto Pilot and His Robotic Minions

Automation in modern transport category aircraft differs sharply from automation in light planes, both in design and philosophy. In most GA aircraft that have an autopilot - and many do not - it is often a simple type that can hold altitudes and headings. A higher end model might have the ability to hold climb or descent rates, capture altitudes, track VORs, and perhaps even shoot an ILS. Still, even capable autopilots are almost an afterthought, and are seldom well integrated with the rest of the aircraft's systems and avionics, even in newer glass cockpits. Most light plane pilots treat autopilots as a luxury that's nice to have at times, but easy to ignore when it's off. Rather few, in my experience, fully integrate autoflight capabilities into their procedures.

Modern airliners, however, treat automation systems as an integral part of the airplane, to be incorporated by varying degrees into almost every phase of flight. In these airplanes, it's never as simple as deciding whether to turn the autopilot on or off; it's moreso a matter of deciding what type of automation to use and how much of it for any given situation. This is as true of the Megawhacker as it is of the B777, and my airline's procedures reflect this.

Our Flight Operations Manual (FOM) defines three levels of automation. The lowest one, Level One, is hand flying without use of flight director or autopilot, commonly known as flying "raw data." This is the sort of flying GA pilots do every day without a second thought, but it is pretty rare at the airlines. It is generally done for proficiency purposes only, usually in good weather. Level One might also be used in situations where you need to maneuver rapidly, such as a TCAS resolution advisory or when the autopilot does something unexpected.

Automation Levels Two and Three are defined as "Basic Flight Director Command" and "Flight Management System Command," respectively. Interestingly, either level can be accomplished with or without the autopilot engaged; the automation policy makes no distinction between flight director and autopilot usage. In the Megawhacker, the autopilot merely couples to whatever flight director commands are active; you cannot use the autopilot without the flight director. The entire package is known as Auto Flight Control System (AFCS); you control the system through inputs to the Flight Guidance Control Panel, or FGCP.

This is the Megawhacker's FGCP. The three buttons with lighted carets on center-right indicate that autopilot and yaw damper are engaged, and that the AFCS is taking course guidance from the captain's-side HSI. The "Nav Source" knobs control whether those HSIs operate in VOR or LNAV mode (more on that later), the "Course" knobs control OBS selection on each HSI, and the "Hdg" knobs move the heading bug. The "Alt" knob moves the altitude selector on the pilots' primary flight displays (PFDs), and the buttons next to it select vertical modes. The pitch wheel controls those vertical modes, and the buttons to its right select lateral and approach modes.

This is a Primary Flight Display, or PFD. Above the attitude indicator it displays AFCS modes which were selected on the FGCP, lateral modes on the left and vertical modes on the right, with the altitude selector displayed just above the altitude tape. "But wait," you say, "there is no LNAV button on the FGCP!" Correct, LNAV is one of the modes selectable by pushing the NAV button. Others include VOR and LOC. Which mode actually gets selected depends on what's currently displayed on the HSI. Remember the "Nav Source" knob? We use it to decide if our HSIs get guidance from the FMS (LNAV mode ie "purple needles"), or from ground based navaids tuned in the radios (VOR mode ie "blue needles"). This is the difference between Level Two and Level Three Automation. In the picture above, the flight director is following course guidance given by the Flight Management System, which is following the flight plan route I programmed in before takeoff.

In this picture, you see that I have blue needles displayed on my HSI, although we're not receiving the localizer yet. I'm now in Heading Select mode, and the aircraft is turning to 050, where I set the heading bug. The airplane is descending in VS mode, and I've used the pitch wheel to select a descent rate of 1500 feet per minute. ATC has cleared us to descend to 11,000 feet, which is set on the altitude selector. Notice also that the vertical mode "Alt Sel" is displayed in white. Active modes are displayed in green, whereas white indicates an armed mode. The AFCS is armed to capture the selected altitude of 11,000 feet.

This picture is a good example of reverting from Level Three automation to Level Two. Moments before, I had been descending on a published arrival in LNAV mode, and I was actually using FMS-derived vertical navigation (VNAV) to descend. Then ATC told us to turn left heading 050 for vectors to the approach. I pushed VS to decouple VNAV and selected -1500 fpm, spun the heading bug to 050, pushed HDG, and then changed my Nav Source from purple needles to blue needles. I actually could've stayed with Level Three a while longer by inputing heading on the FMS while remaining in LNAV mode. I could stay on Level Three Automation all the way to the ground by requesting a GPS approach. I'll sometimes do this just for the practice. When I don't need the practice, though, it's just easier to go to Level Two and do it the "old fashioned way."

Note that all the inputs on the FGCP are the same whether the autopilot is engaged or I'm handflying with flight director. The only difference is that when I'm handflying, I'm supposed to command the PNF (pilot not flying) to make the inputs for me.

I think the average GA pilot would balk at all this gadgetry. "I'd rather just fly," you say. I can understand that - when I rent light planes, I find the utter lack of automation rather refreshing. But used properly, automation makes airline flying easier, safer, and more efficient. Highly automated flight decks are here to stay. That's why, as I've said before, you'll enjoy airline flying a lot more if you're a bit of a geek.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Pineapple Express

Last week, it seemed as though winter had come early. Temperatures were well below seasonal averages, with Portland seeing highs in the low 40's and large parts of the Intermountain West staying well below freezing. Last week I woke up in Kalispell to 5 degree F temps. That was a cold preflight, but visions of powder-filled slopes kept my spirits high. Bring on the cold, the rain, the wind: ski season is nigh!

And then again, maybe not. Today the Pacific Northwest got walloped by a warm, moist airmass known as the Pineapple Express, bringing howling winds, torrential rains, and - unfortunately - freezing levels above 10,000 feet. Western Washington took the brunt of it, with lots of METARs like this one:
KSEA 061703Z 20016G25KT 2SM +RA BR BKN005 BKN011 OVC017 16/15 A2979 RMK AO2 SFC VIS 2 1/2 P0004
Naturally, this royally screwed up our operation. A good many of our flights pass through Seattle, so when SEA gets bad weather, the effects reverberate throughout the system. Seattle had significant flow delays, as did Vancouver and Portland at times, and weather was pretty scuzzy at a lot of outstations too. Therefore we ended up with a ton of delayed flights and a lot of cancellations, too. At least passengers are fairly understanding about weather delays. It's a lot more tangible than maintenance problems for most people. With maintenance, a common complaint is "You people should've known it was broke earlier and fixed it then!" Yes, it is uncomfortable when they crush you in the grip of reason.

Our first leg to Seattle was delayed several hours and our subsequent roundtrip to Sun Valley was cancelled, which made the day a lot easier. We had a break of over four hours, which I spent hanging out in the crew room, catching up with a buddy I hadn't seen in a while, eating some Ivar's clam chowder (w/ Tabasco! Yum!), listening to gossip and spreading rumors, and watching the Seahawks wallop the Raiders 16-0 in the rain. And then it was off to Missoula and Kalispell, where we arrived at 2am. Today is a new day; with only two legs scheduled, one would think it couldn't get too screwed up. We'll see.

It is 16 degrees C above ISA at FL250. You normally see that in the summer. I'm afraid I'll have to endure some more wind and rain without pretty snow-covered mountaintops to encourage me.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Under the Microscope...?

I think the "powers that be" are onto me. Two of my last three trips, I've been flying with check airmen. It's a little bit disconcerting to fly with a check airman. You're in a bit of a limbo land. You're not being line checked, at least not officially. I've never heard of a check airman giving demerits to a first officer they were flying a regular trip with. But you're still quite a bit more careful to fly the book when the captain's main job is enforcing that book.

Increasing the uncertainty in my case was the fact that both check airmen were new and without reputations. In fact, I didn't find out one of them was a check airman until day three of the trip! If they'd been check airmen for a while, I'd know whether they were complete Nazis or were laid back about minor stuff. Was I under the microscope? Or were they kicking back and enjoying a regular trip, glad to not be worrying about training and enforcement for once?

I make it sound as if I'm a completely nonstandard pilot when I'm not flying with a check airman. I'm really not. I fly by the spirit of the book and by most of the letter. Many check airmen are satisfied with that. A few, though, feel that they must pick out any small details I'm getting wrong. And most pilots are regularly doing something "wrong." For an example, refer to my last line check.

Here's another example: Our flight standards manual states that whenever you are hand-flying the airplane, you should not make auto flight control system (AFCS) inputs yourself, you should direct the non-flying pilot to do so. The proper execution sounds like this:

ATC: "Megawhacker 347, turn right heading 090, direct to BANDR when able, climb and maintain 6000."
PNF: "Up to 6000, heading 090, direct BANDR, Megawhacker 347."
(PNF sets altitude alerter to 6000 and pushes ALT SEL.)
PF: "Push IAS twice. Select heading 090. Select my nav source to LNAV. Input direct BANDR on my FMS. Push Nav."

That just makes my head hurt. It's far easier to reach up and push a few buttons yourself. The Megawhacker is pretty stable. It's not going to roll over because your attention was diverted for two seconds. And therefore most pilots will do at least a little button pushing while hand flying, except on checkrides and line checks. Cooperate and graduate, as the saying goes. But what about when flying a regular trip with a check airman? I still fly to the very letter of the book, while grating my teeth at some of the asinine procedures written by desk jockies who seldom fly the line.

Of course, I can only escape an anal check airman by knowing every asinine detail in the book. Apparently I do not. Today I was kicking back with my feet on their usual footrest, the bottom of the instrument panel, when the captain told me that "your feet aren't supposed to be there. It's in the book." I was incredulous until he pulled out the flight standards manual. Sure enough, there it was: "The instrument panel and center console are not to be used as footrests." Nevermind that maintenance puts anti-skid material there for that express purpose.

Most of the check airmen on the Megawhacker are nice guys who I'm happy to share a layover beer with. But God Almighty, if I have to fly another four day trip with one, I'm going to reach an absolutely disgusting level of standardization.