Thursday, March 26, 2009

Loving It

A lot of pilots I fly with come from flying families; many of them have parents working at or retired from RedCo. I know a few pilots that come from veritable flying dynasties, with three or even four generations of airline pilots. These people grew up around the airlines; nothing in this industry surprises them. I, on the other hand, am the only pilot of any sort in my extended family, and didn't even know a single airline pilot until I was in college. It's been a learning process for me since day one.

When I was in my teens, scraping together enough cash to take a flight lesson at the end of each month, I was absolutely and unalterably infatuated with all things aviation. I wasn't simply nerdy, I was obsessed. If I couldn't afford to fly every day, I could certainly read every aviation magazine and textbook I could get my hands on, write essays on aviation, build model planes, fly Microsoft Flight Simulator, code flight planning software, pore over the pages of Trade-A-Plane, and absentmindedly doodle new designs for homebuilt aircraft whenever obstensibly engaged in some activity not involving flying. All these things made me almost as happy as flying itself. The few times that I did have contact with airline pilots through these years, their blasé attitude towards flying startled, puzzled, and finally infuriated me. Here I was, wishing every minute that I was flying, and these guys who got to do it every day didn't even particularly like it! "I will never be like that!" I proclaimed with adolescent fervor.

I remember the first time I actually didn't want to go fly. I was in college, finishing up my instrument rating. I'd been flying a lot the previous several semesters, and this was my third or fourth lesson of this particular week. I remember walking out of my last class of the day, realizing I still had to fly that night, and groaning. My first inclination was to cancel the lesson. Suddenly I realized that this must be what it's like to fly for a living: doing it day in and day out, whether you feel like it or not, whether the conditions are ideal or not. Doubts swept over me. Am I pursing the wrong career? I gained some empathy for the airline pilots I had damned so harshly in years past.

During my internship at TWA in Spring 2001, I did a lot of jumpseating and was able to talk to a great many pilots. I'd often ask whether they still enjoyed flying. The question usually surprised them, as if it was an irrelevancy they hadn't bothered to think about before. The answers ran the gamut from a profound appreciation for the beauty and mystery of flight to a sincere wish for retirement to come quickly and to never touch another airplane thereafter. I found that the answers were much more negative if I asked whether they enjoyed their job, and even moreso if I asked whether they liked the airlines. I would also get rather positive responses to the question, "what part of your job do you like best?" Even the crabbiest old Captains would reply to that question by sweeping their hand across the panorama of a moonlit landscape unfolding outside the cockpit windows and saying "this is great." It was a revelation that most pilots consider flying to be the one good part of their job, and the other, less pleasant aspects of the job completely overshadow it for many.

This spring I'll have been flying for fifteen years, and for the airlines five years. The industry and the profession have taken some very serious blows in that time, and ever more pilots are finding reasons to hate their jobs and get out of aviation as soon as possible. I've flown with pilots who've been in the airlines for less time than I have who are so disgusted they can't wait to quit. I don't blame them; many have taken much worse hits than I have, with multiple furloughs in the last year or two. Although my career has been fairly trouble-free, I do wonder how long that will last, and furthermore whether my profession will ever gain back even a portion of what it has lost. It can start to intrude upon my outlook on the job as a whole. On trips when I'm dealing with crummy weather and broken airplanes and overworked dispatchers and surly coworkers, I put on my uniform in the morning, look at myself in the mirror, and sigh as I think about how much I really don't want to go to work today.

But I go anyways, and an hour later I'm hurtling down the runway at 130 knots with both engines roaring at full power. My FO calls "Vee One," then "Vee R" and I ease back on the yoke and the nosewheel below me stops rumbling as it lifts off the pavement. The plane rears up and sits like that for just a moment, as if in hesitation, then the wings load up and everything goes silky smooth and silent as the earth rapidly falls away. This is one of the best feelings in the world. There are a lot of other things I like about flying, but the moment of liftoff is the instant that whatever else has gone wrong that day melts away, and the frustrations and difficulties of my job are insignificant.

My career is still young. In the thirty seven years I have before retirement, I may yet turn into the crabby old Captain who can't wait for the day he remains forever earthbound. If that ever happens, I would hope that I could quit and do something else that I really enjoy. Right now, though, I still enjoy flying enough that it overshadows all the things that make some people really hate this job.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

High & Hot

We're high. Really high. I'm not sure just how far above a 3 degree glidepath we are, because Runway 35 at Philadelphia is not served by an ILS or a VASI, and the GPS approach we loaded in the FMS is not displaying a glidepath because we intercepted the approach inside the final approach fix. If any of the above were available, though, I'm pretty sure they would be pegged. This runway is somewhat short and wide, so if we look high, we're really high.

"Flaps 5, speed 140,"

"Flaps 5, speed 140."

We are cooking along over the ground with a 20 knot tailwind. The Delaware River is quickly approaching, and Runway 35's 6500 feet of pavement loom beyond it. My FO, who is flying the airplane, pitches up slightly to get below the maximum speed for Flaps Full. I glance over at him; his facial expression mirrors my own thoughts: this sucks!

"Flaps Full, V-approach, landing check."

"Flaps Full, V-approach, landing check. Gear?"

"Down for 35"

"Down for 35. Flaps Full set, flight attendants notified, cleared to land 35, landing check complete. 1000 feet, instruments, uh...normal?"

We're fully configured now and the airplane is coming down good. I have serious doubts about whether it'll be enough to salvage this screwed up approach. There's plenty of temptation to do so. Philly is busy today, really busy. There's a reason they asked us whether we could accept a visual approach to 35. There was about an 8 knot tailwind component so I had looked up the performance; we were well under the maximum weight for landing on 35 with a 10 knot tailwind. Of course, when we told approach we could do it we had no idea they'd be clearing us for the visual from a 4 mile base at 1500 feet with a speed restriction of 190 knots until turning final and a 20 knot tailwind aloft. Mind you, Piedmont Dash 8's have been making successful visual approaches in those conditions all afternoon. But this is not a turboprop, its a slippery jet whose very low-drag efficiency is proving its Achilles' heel in this moment. It should have been apparent to me from the moment they cleared us for the approach that this was unworkable, and I should have requested a vector back around. But I didn't realize it then, and once committed to a certain course of action, there's a strong mission-completion bias in the heart of most pilots, a natural tendency to play the cards one's been dealt and make it work. There is, however, a point at which the laws of physics win out over the steeliest determination.

We're approaching 500 feet above the ground, the point at which our company requires that we have a visual approach stabilized - that is, configured, on glideslope, and on speed. Time to evaluate how things are going. We're configured, and coming down quickly. That's good. However, we're nearly 30 knots above Vref, and the sight picture is showing that we're still pretty high. Suddenly I'm not flying a NewCo JungleBus into Philly, I'm on a Southwest 737 approaching Runway 8 at Burbank. There are only two ways this can end: in a go-around, or in a gas station across Hollywood Way. The choice is clear.

"Screw this, man, go around."

"Go around, Flaps 4."

"Flaps 4. Philly tower, NewCo 1808 going around.

"Roger, NewCo 1808, fly runway heading, maintain 2000, contact approach 124.5"

"Runway heading two thousand twenty four point five NewCo eighteen oh eight."


"Heading. Here's 2000 set for the missed."

"One thousand for two thousand. Flight level change, speed 210."

"Flight level change...uh, speed 180 for Flaps 4."

"Ah, right, 180. Flaps 3."

"Flaps 3."

"Flaps 2, speed 210."

"Flaps 2, speed 210. Philly approach, NewCo 1808 on the missed from Philly 350 heading and two thousand."

"NewCo 1808 roger."

"Flaps 1."

"Flaps 1."

"Flaps zero...speed FMS."

"Flaps zero, speed FMS."

Well, that wasn't so bad. A whole lot happened in those two or three minutes, and although a go-around is theoretically a routine maneuver, this is only the second one I've done in the JungleBus. You do them often in the sim, however, and that training comes back to you quickly. The passengers, on the other hand, probably aren't quite so familiar with what just happened. Once Philly Approach turns us onto the downwind for an ILS to 27R, I make a PA to the main cabin.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, what you just experienced is known as a go-around. Long story short, air traffic control brought us a little too close in to the airport while we were high and fast, and we weren't able to descend steeply enough. I decided the safest course of action was to climb away for another approach. We're being brought around for another runway now, and I expect that we'll be landing in the next five to ten minutes. Thank you."

When things don't go as planned, it's easy to get thrown off your game. A big part of having a professional pilot mentality is being able to put setbacks behind you and concentrating on the task at hand. I assure myself that the go-around was the right decision, check our fuel state, and set the FMS up for the next approach. There's still a little voice nagging me in the back of my head: you accepted the approach clearance when you shouldn't have. I silence the voice as best as I can for the landing, but it's apparent that I'm still a little distracted: I forget the "Flaps Up, After Landing Check" call upon clearing the runway until my First Officer reminds me.

As the passengers deplane, many of them thank us for getting them there safely, something I've noticed more of in the weeks after Cactus 1549 and Colgan 3407. Our lead flight attendant notes that many of them seemed anxious during the maneuver but relaxed once I made the PA. I realize that while accepting what turned out to be an unflyable approach clearance was a mistake, it wasn't an egregious one like a decision to continue the approach would've been. Risking a monumental blunder in hopes of covering up a minor misjudgement would have been unforgivable. Now that I've made the mistake of accepting a visual approach from 4 miles out at 1500 feet and 190 knots with a tailwind, I won't do it again. Because many others have made the mistake of continuing grossly unstabilized approaches, that's thankfully a lesson I won't have to learn through my own errors.