Tuesday, September 04, 2012


Being a morning person is a tremendously helpful attribute in an airline pilot, and I'm just not. Ever since adolescence, I've been a pretty serious night owl, with my peak hours typically occurring between 8pm and midnight. This worked well when I was freight-dogging, and may yet prove fortuitous to flying red-eye transcons and ocean crossings. In my present incarnation as a regional airline pilot, though, it's a bit of a handicap. We have a lot of early morning report times, especially in the ultra-efficient trips I like to bid, and I have to work to adjust my body clock accordingly. I can usually function well on six hours of sleep, assuming I started the trip without a sleep deficit, sprinkling in short naps as needed.

Even this means that those really painful 3am wake-up calls for a 4am showtime require getting to sleep by 9pm, which is quite early for me.  Last week I had one of those in Bismark, North Dakota, for a 5am flight to Minneapolis followed by an east coast turn. I was in bed by 9pm, and tossed and turned for hours on end before finally falling asleep, only to be jolted awake by my alarm clock seemingly only minutes later. A hot shower did little to clear the fog. I fought the nods during the 15-minute van ride to the airport. I chugged two cups of coffee before departure time. By the time we pushed back, I was wide awake and ready to assume my Captainly duties of groping around a dark, uncontrolled field under construction and then taking off into inky skies and darting around a large line of storms - but the fatigue was still palpable, a slow steady hiss in the back of my head that grew louder as the flight went on. By the time we were descending into Minneapolis, I was contemplating the possibility of a fatigue call to crew scheduling. They wouldn't like that this early.

 Minneapolis was appropriately quiet at 6am and approach control almost immediately cleared us to 4000 feet; I hustled down, anticipating a short approach. As we leveled, I spun the speed selector back to 200 knots, and at an appropriate speed commanded "Flaps 1." The FO reached for the flap handle and slid it back into the first detente. Normally this results in a 10-second sequence of the slats moving 15 degrees down, followed by 5 degrees of flaps, during which the airplane pitches down appreciably as the lift devices enable a lower angle of attack. Instead we were immediately rewarded with a loud "ding!," flashing yellow master caution lights, and four messages displayed on the EICAS:


As I reached to press the caution switchlight to cancel the alarm, the first thought that sprung into my head was "why now!?" Readers who have flown the CRJ series will laugh at this, but I've never had to do a real-life zero-flap landing in the JungleBus. I've had a few friends who've done it, and they said it wasn't too bad, but things happen pretty quickly and you touch down uncomfortably close to the JungleBus' 195 knot maximum tire speed. It didn't sound like something I really cared to do with my brain fogged in from lack of sleep and the still-early hour. This indulgence lasted for maybe two seconds before a deeply-seated imperative forced its way up through my sleep-clouded consciousness and crowded everything else out: "QRH!"

"I have the airplane and the radios. Slat Fail QRH, please." The FO already had the spiral-bound, plastic-tabbed rectangular booklet that is the JungleBus' Quick Reference Handbook out and was thumbing to the appropriate page. The Slat Fail checklist seemed like the natural place to start, as the failure happened while we were deploying slats and the other messages were all related to them. I spun the airspeed back up a few knots to give us more margin from the now-undepicted stall speed. While the FO began reading the checklist, I told Minneapolis approach that we had a malfunction we needed to diagnose and requested an extended downwind. No problem, the controller said, and asked if we were declaring an emergency. "Not at this time, but we'll keep you posted." A zero-flap landing would likely merit the precaution of rolling the trucks. 

It turned out to be unnecessary. The very first step in the QRH was to return the slat/flap handle to its last position - UP - and see if the messages cleared. They did. The second step was to extend the slats again and see if the messages returned. The slats and flaps deployed normally this time. "Proceed with normal operations." QRH complete. We thanked Minneapolis Approach for their assistance, and they turned us onto a 25 mile final for an easy visual to 30R. 

So it turned out to be a complete nonevent, one of those things that happens pretty routinely when flying an electronic airplane like the JungleBus, a quick control-alt-delete fix-it. It's doubtful any of our passengers even noticed the extended downwind. It was part of the "almost nothing worth blogging about" I mentioned in my last post. It didn't even interrupt our trip, for although I wrote up the malfunction and it almost certainly required computer replacement as it was the second occurrence in four days, we were scheduled to swap to another airplane anyways. The primary, rather agreeable result of the incident was to provide just enough of a diversion to jolt me into full useful consciousness. I didn't feel the least bit tired afterwards, and flew a pleasant turn to Hartford and back to finish the trip. 

But that's really the point of the procedural, aircraft, and training safety systems we have in place. They turn most potential events into non-events, because there's seldom any doubt about what to do. Even a fatigue-addled brain automatically knows through repetition to fly the airplane, call for the QRH, and coordinate with ATC while the non-flying pilot runs the checklist. Had the slats not healed themselves and we actually had to perform a zero-flap landing, even this would have been relatively easy because the guidance on how to do it is quite explicit, and I've done it a number of times in the simulator. Over the years, I've occasionally decried the lack of emphasis on stick and rudder skills and common sense in pilot training, but the flip coin to that is that turning airline pilots into checklist-reading automatons has itself undoubtedly done a great deal for safety.


MarkeyMarkBeaty said...

Reminds me of watching my instructor in the CRJ sim at UND. Good to hear it wasn't much of a problem!



Anonymous said...

Sam, I love your blog and you seem like a careful and wise pilot. But as a passenger, how concerned should I be about pilot fatigue?

David Foxx said...
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Sam said...

Anonymous-- Well, obviously fatigue is always going to be an issue in any industry that runs 24/7/365. Pilots, like anybody, occasionally get tired and are at less than peak performance. As my post indicated, a lot of the way we do things can help mitigate the risk posed by a tired pilot. The other side of the coin is cutting down on opportunities for fatigue. Some airlines are better at this than others; the worst abusers will be significantly curtailed by the new flight time & duty time regulations taking effect in ~18 months. And then a lot falls to individual pilots, making sure they take the needed steps to be sufficiently rested. Most pilots are very conscientious of this. Sometimes, despite best efforts, you can't get to sleep or get your rest interrupted, and then you have to use coping mechanisms, or if they aren't enough, call in fatigued. Some airlines are better in how they handle this situation than others (my airline, for the record, was quite supportive the two times I've called in fatigued in my career). So...it's a problem, probably one of the last bits of "low hanging fruit" in aviation safety, but one that's recently got a lot of attention and is being addressed.

Ben Read said...

Great posts, Sam. That series of failure alerts -- talk about a jolt of adrenaline.

Robert Goyer said...
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Robert Goyer said...

Is there a way to email you directly, Sam? Thanks, Robert Goyer robert.goyer@bonniercorp.com