Thursday, September 25, 2008

Good Captain / Bad Captain Revisited

The last post reminded me of another post I wrote over three years ago entitled "Good Captain, Bad Captain." At the time I was a First Officer for Horizon Air and was flying with mostly older Captains who had been in the left seat for some time. I listed what I considered to be the criteria of a good Captain, and gave a few tips for dealing with bad Captains. I remarked at the time that most of Horizon's Captains were very good (there were a few notoriously bad ones but I never had to fly with them).

I was only in the right seat at NewCo for around four months and 300 hours before upgrading. Most of the Captains I was flying with had been Captains before but were new to the Junglebus. As with Horizon, the majority were very good. The one or two I'd consider "bad" weren't even incompetent; they were technically skilled, but had what you might call a deficient personality. Overall I'd say NewCo Captains are less "quirky" than Horizon Captains, likely a function of having less time in the airplane or at the company. They're also somewhat more likely to be up for going out on the overnight, although NewCo isn't a party airline by any stretch of the imagination.

Having been in the left seat for about 300 hours, I can say that it's a quite different experience than I thought it'd be when I was an FO. I still think my definition of what constitutes a good Captain was pretty accurate. Since upgrading, I've consciously tried to model myself on it. That's not to say I've entirely succeeded; I'm aware that with 300 hours I'm still a "baby captain" and have a lot to learn. But I am making the effort.
Good Captain knows what he's doing. He knows and follows standardized procedures, and has a good grasp on aviation knowledge that gives me confidence in his decisions.
Despite my past griping about over-standardization at Horizon, I do know the book well and follow it closely. My weakest area here is probably systems knowledge; I didn't think NewCo's training was very effective in this area so I've been doing some "remedial training" on my own. I'll likely do a series of systems posts in the future, because the best way to learn something is to teach it.
Good Captain seeks/accepts input when he's making a decision, but doesn't pass the buck on to me. I'm not the captain, dude, you are, so don't keep shrugging and saying "whatever you want to do."
I do have a tendency to think things through silently and come to a decision quickly, sometimes without saying a word; it drives my wife nuts. I've noticed it happening at times in the cockpit, and I've made a conscious effort to seek input from my FOs and include them in the decision-making process. Pawning off decisions on them isn't a problem, though.
Good Captain keeps an eye on the big picture. He does this by making me handle the grunt work, rather than doing everything himself only to mess up something important.
This is honestly my weakest area. I'm way too tempted to do things myself, especially where the FMS is concerned. I'll see my FO get a little bogged down on confused on how to enter something, and I'm immediately heads down over the gizmos, doing it myself or showing him how. Lately I've really tried to back off and let my FOs muddle through it a bit and figure things out for themselves unless they get stuck or ask for help. Doing it for them does no favors, and even teaching them how to do it won't make them remember it as well as figuring out themselves. Besides, having two heads inside the cockpit fixated on the idiot box is pretty dumb.
Good Captain lets me know when I screw up and gives me hints from the wealth of his captainly experience. This doesn't mean he needs to lord his Holy Captainness over me & nag over everything I do.
There's really nothing more frustrating than flying with a nag. I flew with one at NewCo shortly before I upgraded; thank God it was a short three day trip. I'm flying with new FOs who are generally very receptive to hints, tricks, and tips... but I'm very careful to distinguish between enforcing the book - which I expect FOs to follow - and teaching technique, which I make clear they can take or leave. Also, since my "Lost in Memphis" experience, I've been more careful about debriefing issues after the flight at the gate rather than while there's still work to be done.
Good Captain is a generally cool guy who can make good conversation on a long leg or over a beer at the layover. He's got a sense of humor about things, but gets dead serious when he needs to be.

Good Captain cares about his crew and takes care of them. He helps them out when he can. He'll grace them with his presence at dinner if the crew is so inclined, and might even buy them a few drinks.
I can't really address these; you'd have to ask my crewmembers. I'd like to think I'm a nice guy who has a sense of humor and cares for my coworkers, but nearly everybody thinks that about themselves and it's clearly not the case much of the time. I generally get along with my crews fine and we usually find something fun to do on the layovers. There are a few notorious flight attendants I'm not looking forward to flying with. One of them is on my trip next week. My general philosophy in dealing with such people is to treat them as being much smarter, nicer, prettier, and more experienced and knowledgeable than they actually are, so they feel less of a need to assert it through defiant behavior and it's less of a threat when I need to assert my authority. We'll see how the charm offensive goes; some people simply aren't happy until all those around them are miserable. Fortunately the cockpit door is locked for a large portion of my work day, and my FO this month is a good guy.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Taking Turns

The traveling public's aviation knowledge often seems to be solely informed by 50 year old black-and-white movies. I can't really blame them; that's probably the last time Hollywood made an accurate aviation movie, or for that matter when the media reported accurately on aviation issues. For most people, Captains are still Pilots, First Officers are Co-Pilots, and Flight Attendants of all sexes are still called Stewardesses. When I was in the right seat, describing myself as a "First Officer" earned me blank looks; adding an explanatory "co-pilot" sparked flashes of recognition followed by questions like "so what's your route?" The funniest thing was when people responded to my "co-pilot" status with empathetic looks and words of comfort like "hopefully they make you a pilot soon so you can fly the plane!"

Actually, there was a time when that would've been an accurate assessment. Back at the dawn of the airlines, the Captain really was the pilot and the co-pilot was a mere assistant relegated to tasks like operating the landing gear and flaps. Some Captains took it upon themselves to mentor their co-pilots, even letting them take off and land, but contemporary accounts make it clear that these Captains were the exception to the rule.

This rude concept of crew coordination went away around the time that the airlines started flying jets. Although Captain's authority still reigned supreme and copilots were still decidedly second-class citizens, at least they were now considered professionals and were expected to share in the flying duties. The introduction of Crew Resource Management (CRM) training in the 1980s further cemented the First Officer's place as an indispensable component to a well-functioning crew. Now it's common for FOs to be assertive in ways that were once unthinkable. This shift in cultural norms played a major role in the airlines' impressive safety improvements over the last 30 years.

Where Captains of yore did most or all of the flying and made their co-pilots do menial tasks, now these duties are defined within roles that are typically traded between both pilots on a regular basis. The Pilot Flying (PF) simply flies the airplane, which includes manipulating the autopilot when it is turned on. The Pilot Not Flying (PNF) - sometimes called the Pilot Monitoring (PM) - does everything else. This includes reading checklists, radio communication, navigation including FMS data entry, operating aircraft systems, and monitoring the PF's actions. As you can imagine, the PNF is usually the busier of the pilots, especially on short flights.

The Captain is supposed to designate who will be PF and who will be PNF before every flight. In reality most use a system to trade duties regularly. The most common practice is for the Captain to fly the first leg of the trip and then alternate PF duties every leg thereafter. This can get pretty boring if pilots fly the same trips together in subsequent weeks, or if the trip returns to the same hub every other leg. To shake things up, the Captain might use another scheme to trade off legs. This may include having the FO fly the first leg, alternating duties every two legs, or alternating only once a day, or even determining role by coin toss or Paper-Rock-Scissors.

Company Policy sometimes determines who fills what role. Many airlines require the Captain to take off or land at special airports, in strong crosswinds, on contaminated runways, or in low-visibility situations - especially when the First Officer is new ("green"). Some airlines - like Horizon - mandate the use of a "Captain Monitored Approach" for Cat I approaches in low-visibility conditions. Under this procedure, the First Officer flies the approach and the Captain takes over to land once the runway is in sight.

Policy aside, there are some situations where it's common for the Captain to exercise his prerogative to designate who flies. A Captain may choose to fly when landing on a short or contaminated runway, or in a strong crosswind; they might want to be PNF for an arrival or departure in busy or complex airspace. Of course, most FOs are fully capable of handling these situations just fine, and most Captains will allow them to when flying with a sharp FO they trust. When flying with someone new, or who has demonstrated weak skills in the past, more caution is called for. A shrewd Captain will anticipate these situations early in the trip and set up a leg-trading scheme that "just happens" to have the Captain in their preferred role for the questionable leg. It makes for less hurt feelings.

This month I've been flying with a fairly new FO; he had around 80 hours in the airplane when we started our first trip. He's a sharp pilot with some good experience, so after the first trip I trusted him enough to let him handle some situations I might've been uncomfortable with for someone new who I didn't know.

The first two legs of the month were Minneapolis to Missoula and back. Missoula is a special airport so our company prohibits "green" First Officers from making takeoffs and landings there. Rather than take away the "fun" part of my FOs leg, I suggested that I take the first two legs and he fly the subsequent two legs. It was his first time at MSO so I was able to show him the ropes. The next week, he had the required 100 hours in type so I suggested he take the first leg into Missoula. Having watched it done the week prior, he made a nice circling visual approach.

Later that trip, we flew into Pittsburgh as the remnants of Hurricane Ike roared past just to the west. There was a strong direct crosswind on Runway 10L, and moderate turbulence was reported down the final approach. By this time I was pretty confident in my FOs abilities, so I made sure he was comfortable making the landing and told him to have a go at it. The airspeed was bouncing around pretty good, and I kept a sharp eye out for the first signs of wind shear. This is one situation where I'd rather be a PNF; a critical windshear situation requires an immediate go-around and the PNF is in the best situation to detect it developing early on. This time the airspeed gusted +/- 10 knots of target all the way down to the firm - but on centerline - touchdown.

The next week we had a Chicago Midway turn. With 5800' usable runway, Midway is the shortest airport we fly to. The JungleBus is capable of astonishingly short landings but it requires an effort on the pilot's part; trying to grease it on can easily double the landing distance. I prefer to land at Midway unless I know and trust my FO. In this case he had been to Midway twice but hadn't landed; I was comfortable with him taking the landing. During the approach brief, I gave him my standard Midway speech: "This is a short runway, but not scary short unless you try to land pretty or be gentle about getting it stopped. Here, the only measure of a good landing is one that touches down in the first 1500 feet. Softness counts for nothing. When flight attendants complain about the landing at Midway, I know I've done my job." My FO grinned and said in that case, he'd make a great landing. True to word, he plopped it on just after the 1000' aim point markings and brought the plane down to taxi speed well before taxiway Q.

Although a Captain's primary responsibility is always to conduct a safe flight, mentoring First Officers and preparing them for Captainhood is an important part of the job as well. This is especially true at NewCo, where FOs spend rather little time in the right seat before upgrading. Here an egotistical Captain who tries to do everything himself is truly counterproductive. While I always put safety first, I do try to let my FOs handle situations that hone their skills and increase their experience. That was true of good Captains in the DC-3 days; thankfully they're not the exception anymore.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Tools of the Trade

Walk through any airport anywhere in the world and you will find pilots trudging through the terminal with their rollaboards and flight kits in tow. The fact that we're often gone from home for days on end necessitates bringing at least a few changes of clothes and some toiletries; the flight kit is needed to haul along the tools of our trade that've been largely unchanged for 70 years.

Most flight kits are simple top-loading leather cases measuring around 18 inches wide by 13 inches tall by 8 inches deep. Depending on the aircraft, each pilot's flight case is usually kept next to him throughout flight; there's often a space provided for it just outboard of each pilot seat. Between being put into and taken out of the cockpit, being dragged through crowded airports, and having luggage tossed on them in the hotel van, flight bags take a lot of abuse. For that reason, most are very sturdily built and cost between $200 and $400. These will often last 20 years or more. My flight kit is a vinyl $30 Office Depot special that's falling apart after five years of admittedly heavy use.

Many pilots adorn their flight bags with stickers. This helps differentiate your kit from the dozens of identical bags sitting next to it on the crew room racks. Many of the stickers are for companies the pilot has flown for or airplanes they have flown. Union supporters have union logos, and during negotiations it's common to see expressions of unity or slogans calculated to poke management in the eye. Anti-union types seldom have the gumption to express their opinions on their flight bag; more than one unpopular pilot has opened their kit after leaving it unattended only to find an unpleasant surprise inside. Non-aviation related stickers are fairly common; political allegiances, funny or ironic sayings, and hobbies are all popular subjects. My own flight bag has the following stickers on it: an American flag; CAE Aviation Training Montreal; Horizon Air Q400; a JungleBus; the Apple logo; Mount Hood Skibowl ("Do it under the lights!"); the Mountain Hostel of Gimmelwald, Switzerland; ALPA "Schedule with Safety"; QXTeamsters "Protect and Improve Our Contract!"; and Hyland, my little brother's rock band. It used to have an awesome sticker that said "Dash Trash: Silly Pilot, Jets are for Hot Tubs!" but that wore off from heavy use about the time I no longer qualified as Dash Trash.

Flight kits typically contain every thing the pilot will need with him in the cockpit: required equipment like charts, manuals, and headset, as well as extra things the pilot has found useful to have at hand during his working day. Some of this stays in the flight bag during flight, but there are usually favorite nooks throughout the cockpit for various items. Unpacking one's flight bag after entering the cockpit is referred to in the airline world as "building your nest."

A quick inventory of my own flight kit reveals the following contents:
Headset. I still use my trusty Peltor Sport LE, the same headset I used for flight instructing, freight dogging, and Horizon. It's an over-the-ear style passive noise reduction headset that's fairly cheap but is light, comfortable, and durable. You might be surprised that I'm still using a general aviation headset in a jet, but a great many of our pilots have stuck with their David Clarks. The JungleBus has a lot of wind noise in the cockpit; it's just slightly too loud to comfortably use the Telex Airman style headset more commonly associated with jets. I have seen several pilots use the Bose Quiet Comfort 2 earphones with the UFlyMike conversion; now that it's TSO'd, that may be my next headset.

Jepp Manuals. When I started at NewCo, we flew to so few airports that all our approach plates and en route charts fit into one 3" binder. Now the approach plates alone fill two 3" binders, with the en route charts in an additional 2" binder. These binders take up most of the space in my flight kit.

Company and Aircraft manuals. At Horizon we had to carry these around in paper format, which together with the Jepps made for some very heavy flight cases. At NewCo they are contained in the ship's library, located in a cubbyhole just behind the Captain. I do, however, keep electronic copies of the AOM & FOM on a CD-ROM in my flight kit. This way, I have the reference material on hand if a question ever comes up when we're not on the airplane (I almost always bring my MacBook with me on trips).

Flashlight. The FAA requires each crewmember to furnish their own D cell or equivalent flashlight. Mine now sees infrequent use since First Officers normally do preflights, but I turn it on once in a while to make sure the batteries are still alive.

Sunglasses. I flew for years without sunglasses and I'm not sure how I did it. My eyes are pretty sensitive to glare. The JungleBus does have good sunshades - a cool roll-up shade on each side window and removable Rosen visors for the main windscreens. I have to be careful to make sure I don't leave my sunglasses behind in the airplane, as prescription sunglasses aren't cheap to replace.

Digital Camera. You never know when you're going to see something cool from the cockpit. Sadly my camera has seen far less use at NewCo than it did at Horizon.

Extra weight & balance forms. We do our weight and balance manually and have a specific W&B form we're required to use. These are kept in the airplane but the company doesn't restock them; it's up to individual pilots to carry extras and restock the planes as necessary. This is a pet peave of mine: I regularly receive airplanes with one or two forms left. If we ran out, we'd be stuck. I've found that my FOs lately have been good about bringing extra forms, but I carry a wad of them just in case.

Atlas + misc maps. I enjoy following our progress on maps and locating major landmarks to point out to passengers. I carry the Captain's Atlas, which is a fairly basic 50 state plus Canada atlas that has VORs and airways overlaid. The scale is pretty small, though, so I also carry several free state maps I've picked up from visitor information booths over the years.

Oatmeal + Ramen. One major luxury of working for NewCo that I didn't enjoy at Horizon is getting on-board meals. However, there are no meals on flights of less than two hours, or if First Class is full and everyone wants to eat. In a pinch, instant oatmeal or Ramen requires only a cup of hot water and a spoon. Yum!

Propel water-flavoring powder. The air at FL350 is pretty dry, so you have to drink plenty of water to stay properly hydrated. I find that I drink a lot more water when it's slightly flavored. My favorite is Propel's Berry flavor, followed closely by Crystal-Lite Peach Tea.

Notebook. Recently I've changed my blogging process. I've started writing all my rough drafts in a notebook, revising it on my MacBook, and then posting the final edition within Blogger whenever I have internet access. Having the notebook at hand means I can write whenever inspiration hits; keeping it in my flight kit also gives me something to do on long legs. Interestingly enough, our company policy prohibits non-company reading materials but says nothing about writing materials!
Flight kits as we know them may soon be a thing of the past with the advent of the Electronic Flight Bag (EFB). The hardware is already in most of NewCo's aircraft; they're testing the software now and it's supposed to go live within six months. When that happens we'll no longer carry Jepp charts, which make up most of the bulk and weight of our flight bags. Even though my current flight kit is falling apart at the seams, I'm resisting buying another because the EFB will make flight bags immediately obsolete. This will be the biggest change to the load pilots carry around on their trips since overnight bags sprouted wheels. I imagine that the pilots of yore had massive biceps from wrestling control-cabled aircraft through the sky all day and then hand-carrying their luggage and flight kits through the terminal like real men ought to. If that generation was still around I'm pretty certain they'd take one look at us girly-men (and wussy-women) dragging our bags around and laugh.

On the other hand, once they saw what a shambles we've made out of the profession they worked so hard to build, perhaps they'd cry instead.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Death of the Airport Kid

I got into flying at a very early age. I'm not sure exactly how old I was when I abandoned my interest in trains for an obsession with airplanes, but there is a surviving third grade assignment wherein I declare my intention to be an airline pilot. My first plane ride took place at the age of 11, and I flew three more times before scheduling my first flight lesson at the age of 13. Throughout my early teens, I scrimped and saved money from odd jobs just to take one flight lesson at the end of each month. Later I worked as a line boy for the flight school, which was a dream job in that I got paid - in flight time! - for doing something I'd do anyways, namely hang out at the airport. I soloed on my 16th birthday and passed the Private Pilot checkride on my 17th.

My story isn't at all unique. Airliner cockpits across the nation are populated by thousands of former airport kids. Like me, they built models, read aviation magazines, bummed rides off local pilots, washed and fueled airplanes, and in many cases learned to fly before they could drive. All of us were bitten hard by the flying bug very early on, and it predestined us for a lifetime aloft.

I've since flown with and met many of these former airport kids. As it tuns out, nearly all of them are significantly older than me. Most were making a nuisance of themselves at the airports of the 1960s and 70s; I didn't start flying until 1994. I didn't know it at the time, but the airport kid was a dying breed. Among airline pilots of my generation, the vast majority started flying in college or later. The few I've met who began flying young had pilot parents. The trends behind this change have only accelerated since then, and I fear that airport kids are becoming few and far in between.

The primary factor is money. The cost of flying has been outstripping inflation for years. Regulatory changes, increased liability, fuel price spikes, and the greater complexity of even basic aircraft have all contributed to the spiraling costs. Perhaps the greatest cause is that there are simply fewer general aviation pilots flying now than at any time in the past 40 years. Pilots who learned to fly in the 60s can recall renting a Cub or Taylorcraft for mere dollars. As late as the mid 1980s a Cessna 150 could be had for $15 per hour. By the time I started in 1994 it was up to $38/hr. Now it's hard to find any rental airplanes for under $75/hr. This is putting aviation well out of the reach of kids, at least those without well-to-do parents willing to pay for their offspring to partake in an expensive and moderately dangerous hobby.

A second constraint is the decreased availability of training. The general aviation airports of the 60s and 70s were busier places than the airports of today. The decline of the pilot population has caused many of the businesses that served them to close down. This trend has been very noticeable the last few years as fuel and other costs have pushed general aviation activity way down. Here in the Twin Cities area, roughly half of our flight schools have shut down in the last five years. Many smaller airports, including the one I learned to fly at, have been left without any flight training options at all. The would-be airport kid of today might ride her bike to the airport only to find that there's nothing going on and nobody to talk to.

The third barrier is security. This is a recent development thanks to the events of seven years ago today. Although those attacks didn't involve general aviation, apparently some ne'er-do-well somewhere talked about the possibility at some point, and that was enough. Where airport kids could once wander around even busy general aviation airports almost at will, now even many sleepy uncontrolled fields confront them with security fences and controlled-access gates. Although it's debatable whether these would pose much of a deterrent to the truly nefarious, there's no question that they're quite effective at keeping the merely inquisitive at bay.

My aunt approached me at a family function last month to inform me that my 11 year old cousin has recently become obsessed with flying. He's building airplane models, reading every aviation book and magazine he can get his hands on, and flying heavy jets on Microsoft Flight Simulator. In other words, he's me 15 years ago. How much would it cost, my aunt asked me, to get him in the air? She was visibly crestfallen when I told her that dual instruction would cost at least $110 per hour. This isn't a poor family, but like many they don't have that kind of cash lying around on a regular basis.

I suggested that she get him involved in Civil Air Patrol or the Experimental Aircraft Association. Both offer great opportunities for hands-on aviation experience, and the CAP even offers low-cost flight training for teens. My cousin is fortunate that there's a CAP wing and EAA chapter near his house; they may be the only opportunity for him to follow his dreams of flight at a young age. Many kids aren't so fortunate.

I can hear some hard-nosed pragmatist somewhere grumbling "So what if kid's don't fly? If they really want to fly, they'll do it when they're older." Yes, perhaps. As you get older, life does tend to get in the way. I have passengers remark to me on a very regular basis, "You know, I always wanted to learn to fly...." These are people in their 50s, 60s, and 70s. I have not yet heard one single person express regret that they pursued their goal of learning to fly.

There's another, more practical reason to mourn the death of the airport kid. A great many former airport kids have gone on to become professional pilots because, well, they had the bug and couldn't imagine doing anything else with their lives. Most of the professional pilots my age, on the other hand, didn't start flying until they'd already decided to pursue an aviation career in college or later. Their reasons vary and I suspect the fun of flying was one unifying factor, but a large part of the draw was undoubtedly the lifestyle and compensation that an airline career offered at the time. With the profession now a mere shadow of its former self and training costs ever skyrocketing, I suspect fewer and fewer people will make that choice in the future. There may come a day when the airlines need former airport kids to fill their cockpits, only to find that there are none left.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

God's Country

For the most part, I don't particularly care where I lay over. I bid my schedule primarily for efficiency, number of days off, weekends off, and credit hours. I try to avoid really early show times when possible. However, I don't pay too much attention to the layover cities. Most of them are about the same to me, and while I can generally find something fun to do on longer layovers in most places, the recreational possibilities don't affect my bidding.

There are two prominent exceptions: Missoula and Kalispell. I enjoy our Montana layovers very much. Even when I flew for Horizon they were among my favorites; now they're the very best places I fly. Just the thought of going to Montana makes me happy. Seeing four long Montana layovers on this month's awarded line totally made up for having zero weekend days off.

My fondness for Montana layovers partially stems from my time at Horizon; I spent a lot of time in the state so now an arrival in Kalispell or Missoula is almost like a homecoming. After hours upon hours of the relentless anonymity of the plains, it's cool to start spotting recognizable landmarks and suddenly find myself in familiar surroundings. Unlike many of the places we fly, I'm pretty familiar with Montana's geography. Here I know where I am in relation to real places, not just navigation stations and fixes. As we approach our destination, the scale decreases and I can soon pick out my favorite spots in town: cafes and bars, parks and hiking trails. I know exactly where to look for the airport and the best way to work around the terrain in making my descent. Then we land and park and I take my first deep breath of clean mountain air, and there's no doubt that I'm in my happy place. I could be sitting in a New Jersey landfill and merely hearing someone mention Montana would instantly summon forth that unmistakeable crisp scent - a mixture of pine, cedar, and a whiff of woodsmoke.

My attachment to Montana isn't merely nostalgic. In many ways, it's a welcome change from the daily grind of the job. Many of the airports NewCo flies to are practically indistinguishable from each other. Air traffic control tells us when to descend and when to turn and what speed to maintain, and they eventually put us on a straight-in visual approach (with ILS for backup, of course) three to five miles behind preceding traffic. The only thing left to think about is whether it's a left or right turn off the runway to the terminal! Mountain flying, on the other hand, makes you sit up, pay attention, make some decisions for yourself, and demonstrate a little finesse. Many of our pilots don't have any mountain flying experience, so it's fun showing them the ropes of flying into FCA and MSO.

On the ground, too, Montana is quite different from most of the places NewCo flies. Most obvious is the physical beauty of the place; it takes my breath away every time I visit. Of course, living in Minnesota now, it's a pleasure to just see mountains. The wild, remote feel of the place adds to its unique appeal. Montana has great swaths of wilderness that run right up to and even intrude upon its few populated areas. As I was climbing Mount Sentinel on the UM campus in Missoula this week, a mule deer trotted by not thirty feet away. It occurred to me that there aren't too many college campuses in America where you can climb a mountain and view wildlife.

Beyond the grandeur of the mountains, Montana has a different feel to it that you'd never mistake for the Midwest or eastern states. Although the places we fly in Montana are the largest cities in the state, they are nonetheless small towns by most standards. They have the pleasant attributes often associated with small towns across the nation - friendly people, walkable downtowns - but lack the negative aspects, namely small-town boredom. It seems as though there's always something going on, and of course there's plenty of outdoor adventure to be had in every season. Unlike Midwestern small towns that have been dying for years as their youth move to urban areas, Montana's small towns are actually growing as outsiders (ie Californians) move in. It probably helps that Montana doesn't have big city lights to lure the kids away; Seattle and Denver, the nearest major cities, are both several states over. All this gives Montana's towns a vibrant feel that you wouldn't expect for a place so isolated. That's not to say Montana is in any way cosmopolitan - indeed, it often feels 20 years behind the rest of the US. For someone my age, that's half the charm, as it's like stepping back into my childhood.

On my Missoula layover this week, my FO and I walked through the University of Montana campus and climbed Mount Sentinel (more popularly referred to as "doing the 'M'"). Later the whole crew got together at the Press Box to cheer on the Griz over fresh trout and pints of Moose Drool. Next week we're hoping to score last-minute tickets for a Griz home game. The week after in Kalispell, I'll introduce my FO to Moose's Saloon. If the snow holds off, we might rent a car and drive up to Logan Pass; otherwise the weather should at least be warm enough to repeat this spring's hike to Avalanche Lake. It's going to be a good month!

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Stay Away, Stay Alive

In the summer of 1993, a family friend took me flying in his 1946 Piper Clipper. It was only my second flight ever, but I was already mad about flying; contemporary notebooks saved by my mom are filled with airplanes conceived only in my twelve year old mind. Our friend Paul kept his airplane on his own property, as he had carved out a 2000 foot landing strip in the center of his Christmas tree farm. I had just got new glasses that day; I recall the airplane being somewhat blurry as I helped Paul push it out of his hangar.

Shortly after we got airborne with the aid of a hump in the middle of the strip, we turned to the west and were confronted with a great cumulonimbus cloud that filled the sky. It was at least 50 miles off but was impressive even at that distance; lightning crackled on the horizon. "If you ever see one of those," Paul instructed the young pilot-to-be, "stay far away. Those will spit you out without so much as half a thought."

Fifteen years and 5300 hours later, Paul's words of advice have stuck with me. I give thunderstorms a wide berth. Of course, to do that you must know where they are, and that isn't always very apparent. It takes a mixture of technical skill and hard-won experience to stay a safe distance from storms at all times.

I learned to fly in Minnesota and earned my advanced ratings in North Dakota, but most of my formative experience since then was in the western US. They do have thunderstorms out there, particularly in the Rocky Mountain states, but they're nothing like the monsters spawned in the Midwest, and they seldom form lines that pose a problem for circumnavigation. Therefore I was somewhat nervous about this summer's thunderstorm season, my first in the Midwest - and as a Captain, no less. It turned out just fine. I didn't have any days flying in absolutely horrendous conditions, but there was enough ugly stuff to build some valuable experience.

In an ideal world, one would avoid thunderstorms by visual means only. This is a foolproof way to stay out of dangerous weather, and to avoid harmless but annoying bumps as well. Unfortunately, visual avoidance isn't always an option. Nasty storms often continue long into the night, when it's difficult to gauge distance from lightning. Beyond that, storms aren't always well-defined, and can occasionally be obscured by widespread cloudiness not related to the storm itself. When picking your way through a line, you might have to penetrate an area of moderate precipitation between heavy cells. For all these reasons, the FAA requires airliners to be equipped with operable weather radar with few exceptions.

The theory behind radar is simple: radio waves are sent out, and precipitation sends them bouncing back to the antenna. The radar unit measures intensity by the number of waves it receives back, and distance by the time differential between transmission and reception. The result is displayed either on a dedicated screen or - like the JungleBus - on a Multifunction Display. Light precipitation is depicted by green shading, moderate by yellow, heavy as Red, and extreme precipitation is shaded magenta. The pilots can adjust the angle at which the radio waves are sent out from the aircraft; this is called tilt. They can also adjust the receiver's sensitivity; this is called gain. Advanced units may have some other features, but these controls are the pilots' primary means of controlling the radar.

The use of these controls, and the interpretation of the results, is considered a bit of a black art in the aviation world. The problem, especially in the flight levels (> 18,000'), is that you are above the freezing level. Frozen precipitation doesn't show up very well on radar; the most detectable part of the storm may be 20,000 feet below you. Therefore, at altitude you must aim the tilt somewhat downward. This is mostly problematic because terrain reflects radio energy even better than precipitation, and the resulting "ground returns" can make it very difficult to distinguish between the ground and actual storms. It's worth noting that radio waves aren't sent out at the exact angle you set the tilt to, like a lazer beam, but scatter somewhat above and below that angle. At greater distances, this results in a great range of altitudes that may return echoes. It also varies according to the size of antenna; a small antenna scatters the radio waves more widely. At 50 miles range and a slight downward tilt, a small antenna could be returning everything from ground level to 50,000 feet.

Therefore, the usual practice is to adjust the tilt downward until the ground return is readily distinguishable. At you decrease tilt, the returns come steadily closer on the scope; this is how you know it's the ground, and not actual precipitation. Then you increase the tilt until the ground returns are at 3/4 of the set range. In other words, if you have the display set so that the top edge represents a distance of 200 miles, the ground returns should start around 150 miles away. If you decrease the range, you need to readjust the tilt so the displayed area will show echoes below the freezing level.

The use of gain depends on the unit, but a common technique is to increase the gain until the ground returns at the furthest displayed range are yellow or red. This will ensure the unit is sensitive enough to display even light precipitation at closer ranges.

The Q400, as I've mentioned before, had a terrible radar. In retrospect this was excellent training as it forced the pilot to adjust the controls exactly right to get any useful information. The JungleBus' radar, by comparison, is a dream to use. In cruise with no storms nearby, I'll set the range to 300 miles with the tilt around zero; it regularly picks up storms at 200+ miles away in this configuration, which gives me enough time to query ATC or dispatch and make a plan. The automatic gain mode is smart enough that I seldom need to set gain manually. It even has an automatic tilt mode that changes the tilt as you adjust the range, although it usually needs some fine-tuning.

The usual advice is to avoid moderate precipitation when possible and stay out of heavy and extreme returns, and to avoid by twenty miles any storms classified as severe. The rub, of course, is that one must decide what exactly constitutes a severe storm. The issuance of a convective SIGMET is a strong clue, although this can be done for merely obscured cells. On the radar, you look for large areas of extreme precipitation, oddly shaped cells, or strong gradients (where precipitation goes from light to heavy in very little distance). Visually, you look for cumulonimbus that greatly exceeds your altitude.

Avoidance technique depends on the type of storm. If it's a simple airmass thunderstorm lying along my route, I'll just request a simple deviation upwind of the cell. If it's a widespread area of storms or a line connected to a larger weather system (such as a squall line), I need more information than my onboard radar can provide to make strategic decisions. Having looked at radar, prognosis, and surface analysis charts before flight definitely helps me get the big picture, but I need more recent data to make decisions from. This is where air traffic control and dispatch come in. ATC can display rudimentary radar data on their scopes, but the onboard radar is usually better for tactical maneuvering. ATC's real value is in letting us know what other flights have been doing. It's unlikely that anybody else flying along our route would've penetrated severe weather without telling someone; the holes that they used will be used by many other flights after them. Our dispatcher has access to the latest radar image similar to those your local TV meteorologist displays, and can give us routing suggestions to keep us in the clear. Areas of weather are generally described relative to VOR navigation stations; if we are unfamiliar with any identifier, there is a national reference chart in our Jepp binders.

Squall lines can be tough to deal with; they may stretch hundreds of miles long. Jets have a distinct advantage over smaller aircraft here, because we can deviate hundreds of miles without adding a ton of flying time or fuel required. The major thing here is to ensure that your dispatcher's route planning reflects any likely major deviations, and you therefore have the required fuel on board. Then it's simply a matter of flying around the line, or if you must, finding a gap to sneak through. Again, ATC is a huge help in finding these gaps. Onboard radar isn't as reliable because you often can't tell what lies beyond visible gaps due to attenuation. This is when a return is so intense that it reflects all the energy your radar unit sends out, so you can't tell what lies beyond it. You really don't want to go through what looks like a nice gap only to find a solid wall of red or purple beyond it.

Honestly, truly ugly weather isn't the greatest challenge for most. If it's red or purple, you simply don't go there. Only an idiot would penetrate a severe storm. The harder call is when it's not that bad: mostly moderate returns with perhaps just a touch of red, or the occasional flash of lightning. If this is the only stuff in the sky, it's a no-brainer to avoid it. The tough call is when it's potentially the only gap through a severe line, or is on final approach or an ATC assigned vector. In reality the tiebreaker is often TCAS; if you can see a proceeding aircraft go through without complaint, it's probably OK. This approach surely has its limitations; an extreme case was Delta 191 deciding to continue their approach to DFW through a severe cell because nobody else had gone missed approach.

Severe weather avoidance is as much an art as it is a science. Technical knowledge is surely a baseline requirement, but experience and technique are ultimately just as important. I'm glad I had the Q400's crappy radar to train on, and relatively benign scenarios this year to prepare me for future battles. And quite honestly, if I had to choose one or the other, I'm glad I got to experience a Minnesota winter as a first officer before going out and doing it as a Captain. Speaking of which, it won't be long. Dawn returned to school on Tuesday, and right on cue, the sky clouded over and the temperatures dropped twenty degrees. I saw changing leaves for the first time today. Snow will fly before long, for sure.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

A Tree Dies, A Plane Flies

An old aviation axiom is that when considering how aircraft stay aloft, one should forget all that garbage about Bernoulli and Newton - airplanes remain airborne on money alone! The wiseacre's corollary is that if God had meant man to fly, he would've given him more money.

This does not seem to apply to the airlines. The fools & charlatans who run our airlines have charged less for tickets than it costs to operate the flights for years on end. Eventually, the airline will reduce its costs via bankruptcy or the threat thereof, and they'll find some investor rubes to pump a bunch of money back into the airline, nevermind that the business plan remains essentially unchanged. Should that fail, the government will generally step in to prevent such a keystone of the economy from going out of business. It's only when a great number of factors line up with just the wrong timing that airlines go under. Otherwise the cycle starts over again, generally with "new" management as the last team bails with their golden parachutes.

But I digress. If airliners do not fly on money, one could make the argument that they fly on paper. "A tree dies, a plane flies!" goes a common refrain. While even those poor GA pilot souls trudging through the dark ages with steam gauges and VORs do so in a nearly paperless fashion, we airline types still waste an embarrassing amount of paper each and every flight. Although some of it is due to ACARS printer usage in flight (printing ATIS and clearances), the majority is contained within the pre-flight paperwork package. At my airline, this is generated by the flight's dispatcher and printed off by the gate agent approximately 45 minutes before the flight. It contains several copies of the dispatch release, the flight plan, takeoff and landing performance data, and the weather package.

At Horizon, this was all printed on inkjet printers, which gave a neatly separated stack of papers between 20 and 40 pages. It lended itself to organization quite nicely. You're never going to believe this, but RedCo is still soldiering along with 20-year old dot-matrix printers at almost all of their stations. I really have no idea where they're getting the replacement ribbons. They can't still be in production, can they!? In any event, this results in one large unbroken sheet of paper being handed to the Captain, like a scroll. If unrolled it would stretch around 20 to 30 feet long.

The very first thing you do in Captain OE is figure out how to separate this scroll into its constituent parts, then process them, and then stow them in the most convenient parts of the cockpit. Everybody has their own method. Our aircraft logbook containers are aluminum and usually contain one sharp edge that's great for tearing the paper, but I can do a passable job tearing it straight by hand. It's not as easy as it sounds - while there is a lot of white space (ie wasted paper) in the scroll, it seems that there's absolutely none of it between the sections you need to tear apart. Therefore one needs the touch of an artist to rip the paper crisply and cleanly, leaving the adjoining text on each of the adjacent sections untouched.

Once I've ripped off the releases and flight plan, I'll wedge them between the thrust levers so my FO can access them since they are both required early in the FOs duties. Next comes the performance data. I roll this into a mini-scroll with a diameter of about 3", then squish it so it's a flat wad of 4" pages. This makes it the perfect size for a nook on the right side of the center pedestal. This too, I leave for my FO, as performance data is part of their duties. Finally I tackle the weather package, always the longest piece of paper.

I spend more time perusing the weather packet than any I do on any other preflight duty. I consider it insurance against a FAA violation. Even on good weather days, there is plenty of potential for a "gotcha!" to be hiding in that weather package. A big problem is that there's so much information to digest that it's easy to miss something. You'll have several hours of METARs for departure, destination, and alternate airports, plus TAFs, NOTAMs, PIREPs, winds aloft, SIGMETs, and convective SIGMETs. The NOTAMs section is often the longest section (particularly during airport construction or forest fires), and the ripest for a "gotcha!" hidden among its contents. Most pilots don't spend nearly enough time on it, I think.

Incidentally, Horizon had longer weather packages than NewCo. Besides the above elements, they included area forecasts and AIRMETs, as well as reports, forecasts, and PIREPs for enroute weather. I liked that. While it was more for the Captain to work through, and was unnecessary on good weather days, it really helped situational awareness on bad days. I dislike flying somewhere 1000 nm away and having no idea what the weather is like enroute should I have a mechanical diversion. We can access weather reports and charts via computer at the gate (and I do very often) but there's no way to print them out and take them with you.

Once I'm finished with the weather package, I roll it back up and stow it in a cubbyhole on the back of the center pedestal, where it's easily accessibly to both me and my FO. Then I return to the dispatch releases. I review them to make sure all the information is correct, and once I'm content that the flight can be safely completed as planned, I sign them both. One of them I fold up into a 1"x8" square with the fuel planning info and filed flight plan facing outward; this fits perfectly where the center pedestal and main instrument panel come together, and makes for easy reference in flight. The other copy gets handed out to the customer service agent along with our weight and balance paperwork just before the aircraft door is closed. I file the copy that we keep with the company at my home base when I complete the trip. The two release copies are the only parts of the pre-flight paperwork package that gets saved; everything else gets thrown away after the flight.

When I'm well into my preflight flow, I return to the flight plan page. This has a more detailed breakdown of the fuel planning numbers on the dispatch release; I'll review these to make sure they're legal numbers and I'm comfortable with our fuel load, and enter them into the Performance Initialization page on our FMS. Then I use the waypoint list to verify that I correctly entered the flight plan into the FMS earlier in my preflight flow. I fold up the flight plan page and stow it in a slot at the top of the glareshield where my FO and I can easily reach it. During the clearance briefing, my FO will use it to again verify that I entered the flight plan correctly. Bad data entry is a prominent cause of screwups and worse in glass cockpits, so we take cross-checks pretty seriously.

There's one other piece of paperwork to take care of before we go. At NewCo, we do our weight and balance manually, using good ole' fashioned arithmetic and a circular mechanical calculator for figuring center of gravity. This is recorded on a weight and balance form with a carbon copy. The copy gets handed out the door with the second copy of the release, along with the bag count form given to us by the rampers. The original weight and balance form gets trashed after we record the information on our copy of the release.

We're in the process of flight testing our forthcoming electronic flight bag. The first thing it will let us eliminate is Jeppesen charts, which due to frequent updates are a huge source of wasted paper in aviation. Our company and aircraft manuals, too, will electronically reside on the EFB. Later, I suspect that some portions of the preflight paperwork package will be beamed to us on the EFB. We'll still need a few hard copies of the release for regulatory purposes, but most of the clutter will be cut down. Until then, at least the JungleBus cockpit has plenty of nooks and crannies to put it all in!