Friday, February 27, 2009

Saying No

As a Captain, you can distill the whole of your many daily tasks down to two simple, overarching duties. The first is to transport your craft and your passengers from point A to point B, on a set schedule and with the utmost reliability and efficiency. The second duty is to shout "stop" and abandon your first duty whenever you determine that it cannot be done or is not being done safely and legally. Technically, every airline employee has these dual responsibilities. At some airlines, the second is emphasized as strongly as the first. At others, management merely pays lip service to the second duty while making very clear through their actions that moving airplanes is their primary concern. This seems to be particularly prevalent at the regional airlines, where performance numbers are one of the primary criteria by which their mainline partners judge their suitability for continued business. Sometimes it can feel very lonely to be the only person holding up the operation when everyone else is saying "go, go, it's allright."

A little over a month ago, I was starting out a three day trip with a Chicago-Midway turn. It had been snowing fiercely in Chicago, and although the weather was forecast to improve, visibility was still near approach minimums. My First Officer, whom I had never flown with before, was fresh off IOE, although he had flown the JungleBus previously at his last airline (from which he had received his second furlough in under a year).

Twenty minutes before our scheduled departure time, two maintenance personnel appeared in the cockpit door and announced that they were going to upload a new FMS database, since the current one was due to expire a few hours after our arrival back to Minneapolis. Passengers were already boarding but we were assured the update wouldn't delay our departure. It's usually a quick, routine matter.

This time that did not prove to be the case. For whatever reason, the FMS froze partway through the upload process and was unresponsive to subsequent attempts. The maintenance guys told us to recycle the ship's power, which we did. That compounded our problems: not only did the FMS continue to refuse the new database, it dropped the current one out of the system! Further attempts at getting the system to respond were futile.

After conferring with maintenance control, the mechanics informed us that their solution was to defer both FMS's for now and worry about solving the problem later. I referred to our Mininum Equipment List (MEL), and sure enough, it permitted the aircraft to be flown with both FMS units deferred. This effectively turns the JungleBus into an old-school DC-9, confined to navigating from VOR to VOR. Now, back in my freight dog days I could do that, single pilot, without an autopilot, in solid IMC and moderate turbulence, while filling out paperwork and listening to the ballgame on the ADF - but these days I'm a little out of practice on that sort of thing! The FO and I reviewed the MEL and a related portion of our Flight Operations Manual; it laid out, in great detail, how to accomplish lateral and vertical navigation without either FMS. I reviewed the routing and approach at MDW; they were uncomplicated and easily accomplished "green needles." I checked the weather in Chicago, which was rapidly improving. Finally I conferred with the FO and determined that we were both comfortable operating the aircraft in this condition. That settled, the mechanics began signing off the logbook, and I turned my attention to my preflight flows.

I quickly realized there were greater problems than a simple lack of FMS navigation capability. I couldn't access any of the MCDU pages other than the Radio and Thrust Setting pages. Some of these, like Navigation, Route, and Flight Plan were to be expected - but some, like ACARS and the Performance page, seemed wholly outside the scope of the MEL. The Performance pages are especially important to the operation of the JungleBus. Without them, we have no way to set our takeoff and landing airspeed bugs. Moreover, there is no other place you can enter the takeoff flap setting for the takeoff configuration warning system. We had no idea whether we'd get a "No Takeoff" warning when we advanced the thrust levers on takeoff, necessitating a mandatory abort. Finally, the inability to enter a zero fuel weight in Performance Initialization disabled our flight director until we selected a vertical mode at 1000 feet AGL.

I told the mechanics about these problems, and stated that in my opinion this was outside of the scope of the FMS deferral. I pointed out that the MEL contained very detailed operational information on how to navigate laterally and vertically without FMS navigation or VNAV, but was utterly silent on how we were supposed to work around the lack of access to the Performance pages. They disagreed, saying that Performance is one of the FMS's functions and therefore the MEL applies. I told them that I would accept that if they could provide supporting documentation, including Operator notes on how to cope without the Performance pages. They began perusing the MEL, randomly pointing to anything containing the word "Performance" no matter how unrelated to the problem (ie, "Required Navigational Performance"). I was unmoved; they were exasperated. "There's no way anyone would build a plane so automated that you can't fly without the automation!" one exclaimed. It was clear that they just wanted us out of their hair. They called maintenance control to report our recalcitrance. Meanwhile, I went back to the cabin to report to the passengers why we still hadn't left - it was now well past departure time - while keeping the specifics fairly vague.

When I returned to the cockpit, the mechanics handed the phone to me. On the line was the maintenance controller, who told me that it was his opinion that our condition was indeed covered by the FMS MEL, but I could talk to the supervisor. When the supervisor picked up, I again recited the litany of problems and reasons it didn't appear that the MEL covered them, and repeated my offer to reconsider if anyone could provide any supporting documentation for their contention that we were good to go. He said he didn't have anything beyond the MEL, but thought that the Director of Maintenance might have better answers. "Sure, transfer me to the DM," I said.

The DM was initially even more strident that we were legal than the others. "The FMS modules in the avionics cabinets handle the performance pages," he said. "The MEL covers the whole FMS." That might be so, I answered, but if that was the intention of those drafting and approving the MEL they certainly didn't make that clear, given the explicit operational guidance on how to operate in lieu of LNAV and VNAV but the absolute dearth of information on how to substitute for speed bugs or flight director and how to ensure the takeoff warning system worked correctly. At this he began to back down: "I don't know anything about VNAVs or bugs or anything," he sputtered, "I just know that it's all in the same module and that module can be MEL'd!"

It was well past time to get the Chief Pilot's Office involved. I called the Chief Pilot and the two assistant CPs; nobody was answering. I left a short message for the Duty Chief Pilot to call me ASAP. Then I called our dispatcher, who was rather curious about why I was refusing an airplane that everybody from the line mechanics to the Director of Maintenance said was legal. I gave him the rundown and told him I certainly wouldn't be leaving until a chief pilot called me. He said he'd try to track one down. I hung up and went back to the cabin to update the passengers. We were over an hour late now. I tried to give them more specific information without letting on that this was essentially an argument between me and the company. I admitted that I didn't have a timeframe for a go/no-go decision at this point. Several passengers requested that they be allowed to deplane. I coordinated it with the harried gate agent; shortly after, half the plane got off, to her exasperation. Finally I settled back into the my seat in the cockpit to await a call. My FO and I talked the situation over again. He agreed with my interpretation, and pointed out that even if they were correct and it was legal, operating with this condition would involve making up several procedures on the fly, and it wasn't our job to make up procedures.

A few minutes later, my phone rang. It was the Duty Chief Pilot. I summarized the problem, our interpretation, and the response from the maintenance department. He was rather taken aback: "We can't be operating without the Performance pages!" he exclaimed. That was a relief, as I was wondering if everyone in the company would push me to go. He said he'd call the Director of Standards, the man who had written the MEL, to make sure that our interpretation was correct. He called back a few minutes later and said the Director of Standards definitely agreed that the Performance pages were not intended to be covered by the MEL, and the aircraft was unairworthy in its present state.

I informed the mechanics that I was refusing the aircraft and asked whether they would attempt to fix it. They told me they had "bigger fish to fry" and stormed off in disgust. Dispatch said they were attempting to find another airplane for us to take. I told the remaining passengers this airplane wouldn't be going to Chicago; they filed off glumly. Shortly thereafter we were assigned a new aircraft so we quickly packed up and hurried off to the new gate. As we deplaned, our gate agent was in an animated argument with her supervisors. Nobody, it seemed, was very happy that I hadn't simply accepted the mechanics' word and launched with a very questionable airplane. C'est la vie.

Afterward, I wondered what I would've done if the Chief Pilot who called me had backed the maintenance department up and said the airplane was airworthy. Ultimately, it shouldn't have made a difference: it's the Captain who determines if his craft is airworthy. Practically, though, it would've added immensely to the pressure to go. Most chief pilots, although they're management, are pilots first and foremost. Most would've been like the one I talked to and recognized that from a pilot's standpoint, the aircraft was probably not airworthy and there certainly wasn't enough guidance to operate it safely. There are a few chief pilots out there, however, who believe their primary mission is to ensure that the peons keep the metal moving. I'm not claiming any of my chief pilots are that way, but they are scattered throughout the industry. They make it harder for a Captain to say no when he needs to say no, but don't in any way relieve him of that responsibility. Ultimately, a Captain may have to pay the price for doing what is right. Having some good contacts among the Feds can help. Being part of a union is better yet.

36 comments:

Anonymous said...

Good job - it takes character to stand up for what is right, and you did so.

Anonymous said...

Ditto ! I'm on the JungleBus at 0700 on Sunday, and youse darn well better not take off if it ain't right! 'Nuff said !

G. F. McDowell said...

Fascinating! I am glad for you that it ended well. You really had me on the edge of my seat!

Anonymous said...

thanks

Anonymous said...

It shouldn't be necessary to say right on when someone does the right thing. but

Right on.

Aviatrix said...

Good post, and good call. I find the DM's position the oddest: able to admit that he doesn't know anything about it, but not that you might have a point.

keisha4 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
keisha4 said...

Good move, El Capitan! Mechanics and pilots should work hand in hand.. because we know well that we need them ground people to fix our planes so we could be up in the air. But in this case it seems that they don't want to be faulted for their cockup.

I know they're just doing their job and it's a computer their dealing with, but, like an IT technician, they "broke" the FMS.. cause it was working properly before they tried to update it. They can't seem to fix it, and now it's in a worse condition than before they touched it.

As you said, you can still fly without the FMS.. but knock on wood.. you might have just avoided an accident. And the sad thing is, they (mechanics and some passengers) probably don't realize that.

Anonymous said...

Having to choose between continued employment and taking undue risks with your own life is really not an enviable position to be in, especially given what you folks get paid these days.

The way I'd rather airline pilots looked at it--especially when I'm riding in the back--is that the worst result of getting fired is a temporary setback pending retraining for some other career while death tends to be rather more permanent.

Nothing is worth sliding the holes in the Swiss cheese too close together.

Aluwings said...

Excellent work, Captain. "That's why we get the big bucks!" as a salty old Chief Pilot used to tell me.

I suggest that your mechanics were disgusted that you wouldn't accept the aircraft because they knew they'd screwed things up by trying to hurriedly stuff in the FMS update and wiped out both.

And it's always good to remind ourselves that MELs are documents written by people who sometimes overlook things - and you may be the first person to discover this (as in this case).

Another famous case where new, not-fully-understood MEL writeups were a factor is now called the Gimli Glider. This captain was hung out to dry by a maintenance department playing CYA after the event.

Again - kudos! to you.

Anonymous said...

I have no doubt you know this but if something (anything) were to go wrong you would be first inline for the firing squad!

Good for you. It isn't easy.

Aviatrix said...

Firing squad? When I'm feeling macabre sometimes I say that one of the benefits of being a pilot is that if you really screw up, you can't get fired.

You can't fire someone after they're dead.

Anonymous said...

Good work. I am a fairly new ERJ 145 captain and I have been in a similar situation where the engineers have been telling me that I'm holding up the show when I just felt that it just wasn't right to dispatch. If YOU'RE not happy Captain then YOU'RE not going. Well done.

Anonymous said...

As a passenger, I'm TRULY impressed. I'd MUCH rather have my flight be canceled than have to compromise safety.

Anonymous said...

Wish I had a dollar for every time a mechanic said "you're good to go" when you really aren't (legally and/or safely. Seriously, it's becoming the rule rather than the exception these days. Good for you for following up and as always if your gut says otherwise...investigate and CYA!!!!!

Lenman said...

You did the right thing - for you, your crew and the pax despite the inconvenience for some. The captain makes the final call - period.

Tom B. (China) said...

Good job, Sam. I think about if I were in those passengers' shoes and how I'd feel. At the end of the day they might be glum or pissy but they got to Chicago alive and safe and that is all that matters.

Eugene said...

That's a perfect example of leader vs. follower. There's such honor in choosing to never betray passengers' trust. Sam is right where he belongs: in the left seat of a jet.

hawk205 said...

you obviously know that the flight crew is always first at the scene of the accident.
Good call

flyaway said...

Having been in software systems development for 30 years, one thing that I've learned is don't mess with something shortly before you need it. There are n possible outcomes where only one of them is "worked perfectly". All of the others begin with "didn't go as expected". It's fascinating to see that things like this happen in the professional aviation world as well. Thanks for posting it.

Anonymous said...

Been there, done that, got the t-shirt. We didn't have an FMS problem, but a fairly similar chain of events go on at an out station one day. In the end, it took a call to a chief pilot who also said, "What's MX thinking? You can't fly like that!"

In our case it was an MEL that required us to fly outside of visible moisture. MX control was convinced that the MEL meant rain when me and the captain said it meant clouds. Being that there was a 1,000' AGL layer between us and the hub a couple of hundred miles away, we said there was no way to launch within the bounds of the MEL. The chief obviously sided with us and they had to cancel the flight, then ferry it out.

Danny Boy said...

You made a good decision. There are very few out there that would take the pressure from someone else and stand by their decision.

Ultimately, if the mechanics signed off on it, and you took to the air with your doubts and the worst had happened (crash the plane into a van full of nuns), then the media would have said (and the NTSB probably too) pilot error. And that would have made it even harder the next time a pilot needed to follow his gut and his brain.

I know there are passengers don't care/understand, but there are those of us who do. Thanks for being a good pilot and making the tough decision.

~DB

Dave Starr said...

It's hard to imagine how many PAX fail to understand how often the only thing between them and disaster is the pilot's judgment

As a non-pro pilot who also had many years MX experienced I long ago gave up being surprised by the lack of the 'big picture' held by many MX folks as well. Many have no real concept of what their systems actually mean to the pilot in flight.

Technical competency on the job and knuckle-busting dedication to the job is great, but in the end the pilot has to be the one who makes the decision.

As a passenger, let me add my vote of thanks on making the right call on this one, for sure. May all your fellow Captains always do the same.

Ron said...

Well done! I commend you on standing up to the company pressure and stopping an accident chain before it got started.

Scheets said...

Great story and post on the FMS previously. Very insightful... I appreciate it!

Is there no way to do performance numbers by hand?

Michael said...

Sam,

Are you flying the MSP-YVR route these days? I will be traveling to Vancouver on Friday and wanted to know if I could pop my head into the flight deck and say hi.

David said...

"Finally, the inability to enter a zero fuel weight in Performance Initialization disabled our flight director until we selected a vertical mode at 1000 feet AGL"...why on earth is the entry of fuel weight connected to the enabling of the flight director? Is there some logical reason for this, or is it just a weird design artifact?

Lisa Mesquit said...

Sam,

Just stumbled across your blog and really enjoy reading your perspective. I saw you were based in Portland and was wondering what advice you have on someone looking into corporate aviation in the Pacific Northwest. I'm a US Air Force pilot, from Oregon originally--3400 hrs, ATP, typed in the DC-10, B757/767 and soon, the Learjet 35. I know I have a lot to learn about civilian aviation. Hoping you or someone here could point me to a site or way to find those larger corporate outfits in the NW. Please email to mountaineer6@mac.com. Would appreciate any advice you pros can offer. Love your blog!

Thanks! Brent

Hans said...

The Devil is in the details. Maintenance wanted to defer both FMS nagivation systems, and indeed both are deferrable. If you cant access performance, though, your deferral becomes not 34-60-00 Flight Management System (2 installed, 0 required) but 34-61-02 Multifunction Control Display Unit (2 installed, 1 required). This is where I'd have fought my battle and where you eventually ended up. Good for you for sticking to your guns though and Im glad the CPO backed you up.

Anonymous said...

Fact is you felt unsafe flying without your performance and that is the bottom line. One of the best things I ever learned in the cockpit is....If you are doubting it, you probably should'nt do it. Great Job.

Anonymous said...

Classic. "There's no way anyone would build a plane so automated that you can't fly without the automation!" Had to laugh.

Sam said...

Thanks for all the compliments, folks. There were a few questions in the last few comments that I'll try to answer.

Scheets - we use printed performance data that is furnished with the release. The performance pages of the FMS aren't about takeoff and landing performance, but you do enter configuration settings, speed bugs, etc, there, and its the primary place for fuel performance initialization, calculations & data.

David - I know, it's screwy. This is actually one of those new revisions to the FMS I talked about. They put this in there simply as a way to remind you if you haven't done a Perf Init, because if you forget and then get airborne, you won't have VNAV, which could make for a busy RNAV departure if you had many crossing restrictions.

Brent- I don't live in Portland anymore and was never very connected with the corporate scene there. If you contact me at the email listed on my profile, I may be able to hook you up with some people who are, though.

Last anonymous - I loved that quote too!

Kieran Daly said...

Fly with you anyday!

Myra said...

Doing what is right makes you a bigger man... thanks for the story
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Tamara Cravit said...

I remember reading a column in Flying magazine once (one of Lane Wallace's pieces, I think) to the effect that a good yardstick for go/no-go decisions is to ask oneself "if I go, and the plane crashes, am I going to look like an idiot in the NTSB report?" If the answer is "yes", then that would be an automatic no-go.

Sounds like you made a good call, though!

CLR4theApproach said...

As a former pilot turned dispatcher, I take pride in understanding my aircrafts systems as well as the pilots.. I actually use to J/S just to see the real world on the line for my crews that I supported.. With that, I am surprised that your dispatcher did not back you up a little more.. at least have the coordinator working a tail swap for you right away... You did the right thing.. eben if the CP had said fly it.. I would have refused it and told then to send me another aircraft..