Tuesday, July 29, 2008

City of Light

Last week Dawn and I had our 5th year anniversary. To celebrate, I took her to Paris. I had five days off and there were empty flights going both directions. It was our first time to Paris. I had a chance to go years ago when I was an intern at TWA, it fell apart at the last minute, and I've been meaning to go ever since. It was a quick trip so we didn't get to do everything we would've liked to, but I'm sure we'll be back. Here are some of my favorite pictures from our three days in Paris.

While I loved Paris, I hated the Charles de Gaulle Airport. I certainly saw enough of it. More on that saga next time....

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Moment of Truth

First-year Captains at my airline make about two and a half times what first year First Officers make. I think neither is particularly well-paid for a 76 seat airplane, but the Captain's wage is at least livable. After the first year, FO pay goes up considerably but it's still less than 60% of the Captain rate. This is pretty standard across the industry.

On the face of it, the two jobs aren't that different. The Captain generally isn't working harder than the FO; in many cases, the reverse is true. The Captain is paid more because of the responsibility that comes with being the "final authority" on the operation of the aircraft. In most cases this is a fairly academic point. The FO generally takes part in the decision-making process, and will usually share in any negative outcomes. The FO arrives at the crash scene at the same moment as the Captain; in most cases where the FAA violates the Captain, they violate the FO as well. The reality is that there are about 5 seconds every flight where the Captain really earns the money that comes with the fourth stripe: the moments leading up to V1.

V1 (spoken as "Vee One") is shorthand for takeoff decision speed. It is the moment at which the distance required to continue the takeoff after an engine failure or reject the takeoff and stop the airplane is exactly equal. At speeds less than V1, rejecting the takeoff uses less runway; beyond V1, continuing the takeoff is safer. This speed is calculated for every takeoff and changes with aircraft weight, runway length, and surface conditions (wet runway, snow, etc). Sometimes V1 is the same speed as Vr (rotate speed), but can often be well below Vr, especially in marginal performance situations. In most situations, V1 on the JungleBus is between 130 and 145 knots (150-170 mph).

As the Captain, making the "go/no-go" decision is my responsibility. A high-speed takeoff abort is a very dangerous maneuver that has resulted in quite a few fatalities and injuries, wrecked airplanes, and ruined careers. The decision to abort a takeoff at high speed is not one to be made lightly, but it has to be made within the space of seconds or even fractions of seconds as V1 speed is approached.

For this reason, the Captain has his or her hand on the thrust levers throughout the takeoff roll, regardless of who is flying. At my airline, the Pilot Flying sets takeoff thrust and the Captain takes over the thrust levers. The Pilot Monitoring checks the engine gauges and crew alerting system to make sure all indications are normal; as Captain I keep a good eye on the EICAS even when I'm Pilot Flying. When the airspeed indicator shows 80 knots, the PM calls out "Eighty knots, thrust normal" and the PF responds "Checks." Up to this point, an aborted takeoff isn't a big deal and it's standard to abort for anything out of the ordinary. Beyond 80 knots, however, the risk steadily increases and the critera you'd abort for steadily decrease. As V1 approaches you mentally shed abort items until only an engine failure or loss of directional control remain in the last few seconds before the Pilot Monitoring calls "Vee One" and you take your hand off of the thrust lever, signifying a "Go" decision. Short of the airplane simply refusing to fly, you're going aviating no matter what at this point.

The JungleBus is a bit of a runway hog, and even a 8000 foot runway can be short when you're heavy. Those last few moments before V1 are tense, because you can see the end of the runway rushing towards you as the airplane eats up nearly 250 feet per second. A successful abort with the airplane stopping on the runway looks increasingly improbable. If you did decide a situation merited an abort, you'd command "Abort!" while pulling the thrust levers to idle, then into full reverse. Simultaneously, you'd mash the brake pedals to the floor for maximum braking (the JungleBus has anti-skid). If you do get it stopped before the runway's end, you're not out of the woods yet; your brakes are so hot they're glowing white at this point, and the chance of a fire in the next few minutes is pretty good.

With most of the decisions you make as Captain, you have quite a few resources at your disposal: your FO, flight attendants, dispatcher, manuals, synoptic pages, and maintenance control, to name a few. In most situations you have enough time to gather all the information you need to make a good decision and solicit others' input. Many times the answer is fairly self-evident. In the moments before V1, though, a Captain can be called upon to make the most important decision of his or her career, almost instantaneously and with the very slenderest threads of information to go on. In those moments, the left seat is lonely indeed.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Briefings, In Brief

I've recently been flying with a few first officers who came to NewCo from non-airline jobs like flying Part 135 freight or charter. Since that was my background prior to Horizon, we've had some good discussions on the differences between that sort of flying and Part 121 airline operations. One of the impressions I've heard most often is the far greater emphasis on briefings at the airlines.

It's true. Although most operators' training pays lip service to the precepts of Crew Resource Management (CRM), the airlines put far greater emphasis on it. Briefings are a pretty basic component of CRM. Their purpose is two-fold: to make sure all crewmembers are "in the loop" on operational information, and to foster an environment where open communication is encouraged. The Captain is normally responsible for conducting the various briefings. These include a crew briefing before the start of every shift, a clearance brief before each flight, a takeoff brief prior to each takeoff, and an approach brief before landing. Below I've detailed what each one involves and give examples based on briefings I've recently given.

The Crew Briefing is actually two different briefings: one for the cabin crew, and one for the FO. At NewCo this is supposed to be done at the start of each shift, but the reality is that if you're flying the entire trip with the same crew it's customary to do a full briefing on the first day of the trip and just cover changes on subsequent briefings. With the flight attendants, you brief crew roles and communication, aircraft status, flight time, weather, and security procedures.
"I'm a pretty new Captain and I'm still developing my 'bag of tricks,' so if there's something that I'm doing that's unusual or something I'm not doing that your other Captains do, please bring it to my attention. I'm big on communication, don't hesitate to call us anytime - even if the sterile light is on, so long as it's safety of flight related. If we're too busy, we simply won't answer until our workload eases up. If it's a major concern, use the emergency call button and there are very few times we wouldn't answer then. This airplane has the seat recline mechanism on 13A deferred, but passengers can still sit there. The forward outboard coffeemaker is also deferred, let me know if there isn't an orange sticker on it. We have a flight time of 51 minutes; it should be a smooth ride but there are low clouds in Chicago and we'll probably have to circle to land at low altitude. [Security Procedures]. Any questions for me?"
The second half of the crew briefing is between Captain and First Officer. It covers crew roles and communication as well as any special considerations.
"I try to adhere to standardization but I'm human, so please call out any deviations you see; I won't take it personally. I'm a pretty new Captain, still getting my shtick down, and I'm very open to suggestions for improvement. I'll solicit your opinion when making major decisions; my general rule of thumb is that the most scared person wins. When it's your leg, it's your leg: you'll make operational decisions like altitude changes or deviations for weather and I'll only intervene if I see a safer course of action. When you're pilot monitoring, please handle the seat belt sign and make the PAs. Today our airplane has the autothrottles deferred, so we need to pay extra attention, especially during level-offs...call out any deviations in airspeed immediately. Got any questions for me? Anything to add to the briefing?"
A clearance briefing is conducted prior to every flight, after the clearance has been received but before the Preflight Check is read. The First Officer reads the ATIS and ATC clearance, then briefs the takeoff performance and departure procedure. The Captain reads off the route as programmed in the FMS while the First Officer checks against the release; then the Captain cycles through the waypoints on the Multifunction Display's Map Mode while the First Officer checks them against the Flight Plan paperwork. Then the Captain briefs taxi route, single-engine taxi considerations, whose leg it will be, takeoff abort criteria, and return plan.
FO: "Current ATIS is Mike, it's almost an hour old. Wind is 290 at 7, vis 10, ceiling broken at 5500, 23 over 11, altimeter 3001. Runways 30L and R are in use. Our clearance is to Chicago Midway via the Waukon 2, as filed, maintain 7000 and expect FL250 in 10 minutes, 24 point 7 for departure and 3201 on the squawk. I planned us off of runway 30R; we have a planned takeoff weight of 72,200 lbs, it's a flaps 2 takeoff with TO-2 thrust flexing to 32 degrees. Engine-out turn procedure off of 30R is a 299 heading."
CA: "Ok, on the Route page I have Waukon Two...Dubuque...Davenport...Motif Three arrival...Chicago Midway."
FO: "That checks."
CA: "Individual waypoints are...Farmington, Waukon, Dubuque, Davenport, Bradford, MOTIF, MINOK, Joliet, Midway Airport."
FO: "That checks."
CA: "From here we can expect taxi to 30R via Papa taxiway. It's a short distance so we'll plan on taxiing out on two engines. It'll be my leg. Call out any abnormalities on the roll, I'll make the decision whether to abort. Before 80 knots it's a low-speed abort and I'll abort for any abnormalities including any warning or caution light, windshear indications, and control or performance issues. Beyond 80 knots it's a high speed abort and I'll abort only for an engine failure, fire, loss of directional control, or anything that puts the airplane's ability to fly into doubt. After V1 I'll continue via the 299 heading and at a safe altitude I'll give you control of the airplane while I run checklists. It's a nice VFR day so we can plan on returning via a visual approach to runway 30L; we're well below max landing weight so that won't be a problem. Any questions?"
The takeoff brief takes place during the taxi, around two minutes prior to takeoff. The Pilot Flying briefs initial route and altitude, engine out procedure, and first flight plan fix.
PF: "My takeoff on 30R, runway heading or as assigned, 7000 feet. It's a 299 heading if we lose one. First fix is Farmington. Any questions?"
Approach briefings are pretty similar to those regularly given in the GA and charter worlds. We follow the briefing strip format introduced by Jeppesen some years back, with a few small changes. The PM briefs the ATIS, then the PF briefs descent profile planning, then the PM briefs the approach plate, and finally the PF briefs the landing, rollout, and taxi in.
PM: "Midway information Bravo, 20 minutes old, wind 230 at 22 gusting 26, five miles vis in light rain, ceiling 1300 broken, 2100 overcast, 20 over 18, altimeter 2989. ILS 31C circle to land 22's in use."
PF: "We're currently cleared to cross 10 miles west of Bradford at 15,000'; I'm planning to cross MOTIF at 10,000' and MINOK at 6000'. Brief the approach plate please."
PM: "This is the ILS 31C approach to Chicago-Midway, chart 11-1 dated 1 August 2007. ILS frequency 109.9, inbound course 315, crossing HOBEL at 1700'. Our MDA is 1620 to circle to 22L, airport elevation 620. MSAs are 3400 to the north and 2800 to the south; the highest point on the chart is Sears Tower about 8 northeast of the field at 2325'. Missed approach is a climb to 1100' then a climbing left turn to 2100' and a 150 heading to intercept the Peotone 001 radial to IGECY, then climb to 2600 and hold at Peotone on a direct entry. We'll be circling to the left for runway 22, our approach speed puts us in Category D so we need to stay within 2.3 miles of the airport. We need 2 miles vis to shoot the approach. 22L has REILS and a PAPI on the right."
PF: "Runway 22L has a landing distance of 5802' and it's a wet runway, so I'll make a flaps full landing with maximum reverse and braking. I'll exit to the left at Delta or Yankee. We're parking at A5 so we can expect a taxi route of Yankee, Echo or Yankee, Kilo. Any questions?"
Yeah, it's a lot of talking. Once you've been doing it a while, though, you get used to the format and it's pretty effortless. The payoff is that it keeps everybody on the same page as to what you're planning on doing, which is a very good thing from a safety standpoint but also ultimately makes everybody's job easier.