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!


Wayne Conrad said...

Thanks for letting us watch over your shoulder. There's more to getting there safely, legally and not-second-guessedly than I ever imagined. Who would have guessed cutting a scroll up into little pieces?

Anonymous said...

Does anyone in the airline world use a handheld gps for unofficial weather enroute? I would think that would do a lot for situational awareness of weather.

James said...

Are your dot-matrix printouts on carbon paper (so the airline is generating two or more copies at once?)

This has two benefits -- it can be the cheapest way of printing multiple copies (inkjet certainly isn't), and if there's a carbon copy at base, there's no dispute about "well, the other copy said something different" (which might crop up in a regulatory or legal context).

Sam said...

James-- no carbon paper involved. The only things the FAA requires to be archived are the release, weight & balance, & weather. The second copy of the weather is stored electronically; we file the copy of the release we keep, after copying the W&B info onto it and satisfy the other two requirements. The extra release is < 10% of the total length of the scroll, so it doesn't make it worthwhile to do everything in duplicate.

Anonymous-- Noooo. Believe it or not, the FAA looks very harshly upon unapproved devices being used in Part 121 cockpits. While a handheld GPS with XM weather capability would come in incredibly handy on a bad weather day when you needed to look for a good place to divert, the FAA doesn't see it that way. Unless it's TSO'd, on the aircraft's equipment list, in the airline's op specs, with procedures in the operations manual and a training program in place to use it - the feds don't want it in airliner cockpits.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting read. I work for a company that builds EFBs and Software for them and I'll be looking forward to reading how you get along without the paper.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the glimpse into the details of preflight planning.

Just curious; what do you consider the most critical piece of weather planning equipment? In other words, what would you be most uncomfortable losing access to, from something at the station to your onboard radar, from a weather planning/avoidance standpoint?


Sam said...


You're essentially asking which is more important: tactical or strategic weather avoidance. In most cases I'd say tactical. I use national/regional radar at the gate to get the big picture, which is useful for situational awareness and double-checking that your dispatcher wasn't negligent in his route planning. Other than that, though, it's not particularly helpful because the weather will have changed so much by the time you get close to it. When actually working at getting around thunderstorms, onboard radar is simply indispensable. I know how much it sucks to navigate storms without one because the Q400's radar was so worthless as to not really matter whether it was working or not. Visual avoidance is always best, of course, but it's often impossible to get through gaps in large lines and still maintain visual contact with the nasty stuff. The regulations recognize the importance of radar usage in Part 121; they only let you go without it in Day VMC conditions without any thunderstorms forecast along the route. There's no such regulation about looking at a doppler radar display before flight, although it's still the smart thing to do and arguably falls under 91.13 and 91.103.

I'll probably write a post about this soon.

Nicole Bullock said...

I can't believe how much paper is wasted either. An electronic flight bag sounds like an interesting prospect.

BTW, I nominated you for a Brillante Award, which is nothing more than saying that FL250 one of my favorites, and I posted on my blog why your is awesome.