Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Fed

I first noticed him as I strolled up to our gate in Pittsburgh at 5:30am, bags in tow. He was wearing black polyester pants, a leather jacket with epaulet loops, and a plastic ID card on a lanyard; I mistook him for a jumpseating Southwest pilot. He was fourth in line to speak to the gate agent, so I just waved and motioned that I'd talk to him on the airplane as I continued down the jetway.

A few minutes later, I was sitting in first class and tucking into a Quiznos breakfast sandwich when our gate agent entered with jumpseater in tow. I put down the remnants of my sandwich, stood up, wiped the crumbs off my pants, and extended a hand as I introduced myself. "Hi, I'm Jerry with the FAA," he replied as he produced his credentials. That caught me off guard. "Oh! Will you be joining us in the flight deck?" I sounded a little too surprised. "Well, I'm traveling on official business, so yes, this will be a line check," replied the Fed somewhat gruffly. Not the most auspicious of introductions, I thought.

I'm no stranger to line checks. As a Part 121 Captain I'm required to have them at least once a year, but in reality it ends up being more often. There's a world of difference between being checked by a check airman and the FAA, though. The worst possible outcome of a company line check is being forced to undergo retraining, and a more typical "bad" line check simply results in being counseled by the check airman, with an accompanying note in your file. FAA inspectors, on the other hand, can and do issue violations on the basis of line checks. A Captain at Horizon, for example, had his license suspended on the basis of not challenging his FO over a few non-pertinent words below 10,000 feet. With a Fed in your jumpseat, your career is on the line.

That said, I've had a few FAA line checks where the inspector in question was clearly more interested in getting to his destination with a minimum of hassle rather than examining our work with a fine-tooth comb, or where the inspector was obviously unfamiliar with transport category airplanes and airline operations. It quickly became obvious that Jerry was not this sort of Fed. He accompanied Randall on his walkaround, carefully inspected every page of our logbook for ten minutes, and listened intently as I gave the longest and most detailed crew and clearance briefings of my life. Randall followed suit and went into ultra-conservative mode; I think he did the weight and balance worksheet three times! We pushed five minutes late.

It had been snowing in Pittsburgh for the last ten days, and the airport was as bad as I've ever seen it; I think they sent the plow crews home for sheer exhaustion! Several times we had to plow through sizable snow berms lying across the taxiways. The deice pad next to Runway 28R was closed so we had to take a detour to the south pad. Once we were finally off the ground, though, I could relax a bit; the air was smooth and the skies were clear with crystalline visibility from just west of Pittsburgh all the way to Minneapolis. At cruise altitude, our Fed proved to be more affable than we first took him to be. He had flown for USAir for 18 years, before which he was an FAA inspector for 20 years; since airline retirement, he had returned to the Feds to work in the aircraft certification department, which was why he was now enroute to Duluth for icing tests on a forthcoming Very Light Jet. His previous major assignment was A380 certification, for which he spent a summer living in France and amassed nearly 100 hours of stick time on the super-jumbo ("flies exactly like an A320!").

We talked about the Kingston overrun, the MSP overflight, and Continental's hull loss at Denver last year. "What we've been seeing a lot of lately are 'grey matter' incidents and accidents," Jerry said. "These aren't exactly tricky, insidious situations. They're simply dumb mistakes made without thinking. It's complacency in action." We had a long discussion about the Colgan crash, particularly as related to airline stall training. We asked about the new flight time and duty rules, of which Jerry disavowed any specific knowledge but said he'd heard the airline industry is gumming up the works by throwing out some ridiculous numbers for the cost-benefit analysis, so now the FAA is bringing in their own financial people.

The flight passed quickly and soon it was time to prepare for the approach into Minneapolis. The weather was beautiful with clear skies, unlimited visibility, and light surface winds from the south. We were vectored for a visual approach to Runway 12L. We called the airport in sight from a 15-mile left base leg at 4000 feet, and were immediately cleared for the approach with the admonition to maintain 180 knots or better to a five mile final. I initially slowed to 210 knots and called for Flaps 1. I heard approach ask the RedCo flight behind us to slow to his final approach speed for JungleBus traffic four miles ahead; I figured I'd help ATC out with the separation and stayed at 210 knots until joining the glideslope.

As we intercepted the glideslope and started down, I spun the speed selector back to 180 knots and started to call for Flaps 2, then caught myself. Despite the thrust levers being at flight idle, the plane had accelerated just above the flap limit of 215 knots. I disconnected the autopilot and pitched up a little to get under the flap speed. I stayed level to slow further, and as soon as we were below 200 knots, I called for Flaps 3. At this point I realized we were quite high and still very fast for how close we were to the runway. I glanced at the wind readout and was surprised to see that we had a 20 knot tailwind aloft. That's the sort of thing I should've checked before deciding to stay fast close in! I immediately called for Gear Down, then Flaps 5, and maneuvered to rejoin the glideslope at a few knots under the Flaps 5 limit speed.

Finally configured, the plane came down quite steeply. Coming through 1000 feet above the airport, we were rejoining the glideslope, but were still at 170 knots. I was starting to seriously doubt whether we'd be able to get stabilized at approach speed by the minimum altitude of 500 feet. We still had that blasted tailwind. How in the world could I let this get so bad, so quickly? I'd never bungled a perfectly good visual approach so badly, so why today of all days with a Fed peering over my shoulder? The speed bled off agonizingly slowly. I was going to be well over approach speed at 500 feet. There was only one thing to do, of course, yet I found myself surprisingly hesitant. I would never continue an unstablized approach in normal circumstances, so why even think about it with a Fed watching, when doing so would be a likely career-ender?

Five hundred feet. Twenty knots fast with unspooled engines. Moment of truth. "Unstablized approach, go around, flaps 2," I said as calmly as I could as I pressed the TOGA buttons and pitched up as the engines surged to full thrust. Randall repeated the instructions, retracted the flaps, and told MSP Tower we were going around. "Positive rate, gear up. Heading." MSP Tower gave us a left turn to 360 and a climb to 3000 feet, then asked if everything was okay. "We're fine, we just got a little fast," Randall replied. At 1000 feet: "Flight level change, speed 210...Flaps 1...Flaps 0...climb, descent, and approach checks please." Randall completed the checklists in short order, I made a very short "everything's ok" PA, and then we were cleared for another approach from a six mile left base. This time I configured immediately and the approach and landing went off without a hitch.

I avoided eye contact with the Fed until the engines were shut down and parking check complete. Finally I turned and ventured a lame, "Well, I really screwed the pooch on that one...." Jerry cut me off: "Never ever apologize for going around. Everyone screws up a visual approach at some point. I know I have. The real question is what you do about it. The guys who try to salvage a bad situation are the ones you eventually read about in the paper. I was proud of the decision you made, I know it had to be hard with me sitting there. But it was absolutely the right thing to do, and you both did a nice job on the go around. That's all I care about." Jerry shook our hands, gathered his things, and left.

The pep talk made me feel a little better, although I wasn't really upset about having to go around, I was upset about putting myself in the situation where a go around became necessary. Dwelling on mistakes, however, is not a luxury you have when there's flying left to do. I learned a long time ago - back during primary training - that when I beat myself up for mistakes, I tend to get preoccupied and make even worse errors. So I shook Randall's hand for a job well done, congratulated myself on making it through a FAA line check with licenses intact and a good blog story to boot, and walked up the jetbridge to retrieve the paperwork for the next flight.


Anonymous said...

I know I'd have been embarrassed had I messed up an approach that seemed pretty easy and straightforward. Like Jerry said, though, your decision to go around was definitely the right one to make. Can't let pride get in the way of sound reasoning and safety. Fly safe.

Capt. Schmoe said...

Sounds like you were given a check ride by a true professional.

brandon said...

Great post, captain.

Anonymous said...

Nice job. For some unknown reason to me (i have a guess) we have been running an "upside down" configuration on occasion. Upside down = landing/departing WITH the wind. I can tell you every PIREP (wind 320@25 at 500' while landing the 12's) is passed to the supervisor. We ( the tower controllers) see the pain of the pilots inside the finial approach fix. You've heard it, "your overtaking traffic on the parallel, reduce 20 kts if possible". I wish we were allowed to "jump seat " again, it is such a huge training tool for controllers to see the other side of the "street". Speaking of which, if you and your wife want a tour of the tower ask clearance for the "unrecorded" phone number and leave a number for LT to call. (If able don't post as written, omit things that need to be omitted)


GreenPilot said...

riveting stuff man. wow! thanks for being humble about your career and allowing all of us to learn an aviation lesson free of charge. congratulations on passing the ride.

safe skies,


i3simes said...

Hi Sam!,

I've been following your blog for quite sometime, great work!

I work at DLH and am very involved in anti-icing testing on the new "VLJ". Would like to discuss further if you have time; my email is

Jerry is great, by the book yes, but not out to make life difficult, just interested in aviation safety as we all are.


Chris said...

This post is full of win.

Tom said...

Not just a very, very good post but congrats to your honest description of your feelings and thoughts during this line check, making the right decision.


Rob said...

A great true to life story, it's the kind of blog post I aspire to! I have felt the exact some feelings at times

Lenman said...

Good post!

phil said...

great story!

Steven said...

Fascinating read, thanks for the post!

Jersey John said...

I'm a professional writer and an avid flightsimmer and aairliner buff. I jumped for joy back when you got hired at Newco just before going back to the San Antonio Sewer Tube.
I loved this post and it took guts to write it and as you spelled out the narrative and I imagined the scenario (my ride of choice is the Wilco version of your ride) I said, damm he had best go around. Good man and good stick.

Did Jerry figure out who you are? I suspect he had a clue.

Fred said...


Great post.


Anonymous said...

Captain Sam. Great read! A reader from my blog sent me your link. I fly the Airbus 320 for Air Canada.
Maybe you could include my blog address and I'll do the same for you?


Captain Doug Morris

P.S I would have emailed you directly but I could not find an address.

Bob said...

Thanks from a regular reader for sharing the details.
I'd happily fly with you any time.

siouxpilot said...

Great decision Sam! As you know always better to give yourself another shot.

How often does this happen to commercial airliners? I've never been on a commercial flight that had to go around.

I've also had my own run in with "the Fed". Got ramp check on a ferry flight picking up a new aircraft. Got the heart going a little bit!


judith said...

Sam - Quick question if poss . I recall reading some time ago that if you do a go around in the present generation a/c it will electronically inform your despatcher and the company may investigate - is this so ? What's your opinion of it ?

FlyCRJ said...

It is always stressful having a fed ride in the jumpseat.

It doesn't help when you have maintenance issues or weather to deal with to make you second guess your decisions. No matter what you do, you will think about it for a few days afterwards.

But these and difficult days are what make us better pilots.

Thanks for the post!


John Bow said...

Great story and a good lesson for a student like me! Thanx!

Derrick Trucks said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.