Friday, January 17, 2014

That Sinking Feeling

One of the most frequent questions I get from non-pilots - after "what route do you fly" - is "don't you ever get bored up there?" The quick, obvious answer is "of course." Modern airline flight is thankfully routine and devoid of frequent surprises, and a certain amount of enroute ennui is inevitable. I've written before about ways that I combat that, such as talking to crewmembers and following our route on a road atlas. But there's a big difference between being occasionally bored enroute, and being completely bored with the job. I've known more than a few people who find airline flying terribly dull. I see where they're coming from, but I also think it's what you make of it. I would probably find it tiresome as well if I didn't bid different routes every week, make an effort to get to know my crewmembers and do things with them, and make sure I get out of the hotel and explore our layover cities. Those things keep the job fresh, and every once in a while something even happens in flight to shake up the routine a bit. Of course, I'm seldom appreciative at the time.

Last Friday I flew a daytrip to Steamboat Springs, Colorado (actually Hayden, KHDN) and back. Now, in the winter I tend to bid more 3- and 4-day trips to cut down on the driving and get out of the snow for a few days a week, but the computerized Preferential Bidding System (PBS) that builds my schedule determined that staffing required I fly one daytrip, and added it to my January line. I hadn't flown to Steamboat in two years, partly because we only do it in the winter and I avoid winter daytrips, and partly because I avoid Steamboat specifically due to the low credit time (4.5 hours roundtrip) and operational challenges associated with it. Fortunately, when I looked at the weather before heading to the airport, Steamboat Springs had clearing skies and it was forecast to be a nice day.

When I got on the airplane in MSP, mechanics were on board clearing an MEL. One air cycle machine ("pack") had been deferred, limiting the airplane to 31,000 feet, but now it was fixed. I called our dispatcher to take the MEL off of the release and get the phone briefing that our company requires before all flights to Steamboat Springs. On a bad day, some of the issues I would discuss with the dispatcher might include snow removal and runway braking status, maximum landing weight considering contamination and climb performance limitations due to terrain and icing, permissible load out of MSP considering our landing weight, weather at alternate and second alternate airports, and potential problems getting into Steamboat considering that we can only land on Runway 10 with a 3 knot or less tailwind when it's snowing, and the fact that 28 is served only by an RNAV approach with relatively high minimums. Besides that, we might also talk about performance limitations for the return flight, and whether the booked payload out of Steamboat might require taking a reduced fuel load and a tech stop to refuel in Denver on the way back to MSP. This day, however, there were no such troublesome matters to discuss. "There's a little bit of snow just moving out of the front range now," said our dispatcher, "but Steamboat and surrounding area should stay clear. No alternate needed." He added that though he had planned the flight at FL300 for the now-removed MEL, we could go up to FL360 to save fuel. With that he cheerily wished us a good flight. I briefed the First Officer - who I had flown with several times - on what we had talked about, and continued with my preflight routine.

We were about 55 minutes into the flight when "MESSAGE RECEIVED" popped up on our FMS screens. It was a text from our dispatcher. "New Hayden TAF just out would require an alternate. Are you ok continuing without one?" Per the regulations and our Flight Operations Manual, the well-known 1-2-3 rule (alternate airport required if within +/- 1 hour of arrival, less than 2000' ceiling and 3 miles visibility is predicted) only applies to preflight planning. If we take off and then the predicted weather goes below 1-2-3, we are permitted to continue without an alternate if the Captain determines it is safe to do so. The FO and I eyed the amended TAF. It was drastically worse than the original, showing 1/2 mile visibility in snow until after our ETA, and winds picking up heavily from the west around then. "I'm pretty sure that's below minimums at Hayden," said my FO. We flipped through our Jepp plates. Sure enough, the minimums for the special ILS Z Rwy 10 are 3/4 mile visibility. If the winds from the west were more than 3 knots - a seeming certainty - the RNAV Rwy 28 approach requires 1 & 3/8 mile vis, with a MDH of 514' above touchdown elevation. I used the ACARS "Weather Request" function to pull up the most recent METAR. Sure enough, it was 1/2 mile visibility in moderate snow with 8 knots of wind from the west. Clearly, continuing without an alternate would be sheer madness. My FO agreed vigorously.

I decided to do a little homework before responding to our dispatcher. I pulled up the weather for Denver; it was fine. Laramie and Cheyenne are closer and the weather was good at both, but a quick review of their 10-7 (Company Info) pages showed that neither is a regular line airport, and a divert to either would involve sitting on an FBO ramp and depending on them for services they may or may not be able to provide in a timely manner. If a divert was in the offing, I'd best avoid those two. I checked our fuel and did some quick calculations. Thanks to our higher-than-planned cruise altitude, we would be arriving with about 600 lbs more fuel than originally planned. If we diverted to Denver, I wanted to land there with no less than 3500 lbs (2640 is official reserve but it would be foolishness to land at a busy airport with that little, especially with unforecast, unsettled weather around). We had just enough fuel to fly one approach at Steamboat Springs, go missed approach, and divert to Denver. If the weather was still below minimums when we got to Steamboat, we had no more than five minutes of holding fuel.

I typed a message back to our dispatcher. "New TAF and METAR shows below minimums at HDN. Request Denver alternate, FOB 9.2, show 6.4 on arrival at HDN, bingo to DEN 6.0. Also, please call HDN ops and request most recent MUs." Hayden is a designation Special Winter Operations Airport (SWOA), which is the reason we can't land with no more than 3 knots tailwind when it's snowing. It also requires runway friction numbers (MU being one type) or a braking report from a transport category aircraft less than an hour before our arrival. The dispatcher replied promptly: "Hayden MUs 39/41/33 as of 5 minutes ago. A320 just landed reported good braking." We were landing in only 40 minutes, so that met the requirement. "Denver alternate looks good, add that to your release, sending numbers to your printer." The ACARS printer spit out a new flight plan page with amended fuel required numbers that roughly matched my calculations, though a bit less conservative.

With that the FO and I set about reviewing Hayden's 10-7 sheets, which are a full eight pages long as opposed to most airports' 1 or 2 pages. About half of these applied to our arrival, and included quite a few review items we had already considered and a few we had not (e.g.: call CTAF 15 minutes out to get all the snowplows off the runway!). We briefed the ILS Z Rwy 10, noting that the missed approach procedure is different than the normal ILS in our FMS, as well as the RNAV 28. Runway 10 also had a Complex Special procedure to consider for an engine failure during missed approach. While discussing these items, we kept requesting a new METAR on the ACARS every five minutes. Special METARs kept coming out, but showing little improvement. Denver Center issued a descent clearance and we started down. I silently cursed myself for not requesting more fuel with any snowfall anywhere in the mountains. I know from experience just how unpredictable mountain weather can be. Oh's not helpful to dwell on that now, I told myself, and concentrated on the task at hand.

We were passing through 18,000 feet when Denver Center triumphantly informed us that Hayden's new weather was 6 miles in light snow, ceiling 2200 broken, wind 230 at 4, and asked us which approach we would like. The weather at the airport was good enough for the RNAV Rwy 28, but I suspected it would be worse east of the airport, where we would be approaching from. The southwest wind was just light enough to land on 10. My FO requested the ILS Rwy 10. The controller immediately cleared us direct to the Hayden VOR, 12000' until established, cleared for the ILS Rwy 10 approach. I called for the approach checklist a bit early, overflew the VOR, joined the backcourse, and passing INEDE hacked the timer for a good-ole-fashioned freight-dog-style procedure turn onto the ILS. We broke out of the clouds right at INEDE inbound, and the sight was about what I expected: a clear airport with a wall of snowfall immediately east, over the town of Steamboat Springs. The snowplows confirmed on CTAF that they were clear of the runway, and we landed on the nicely plowed runway without incident. We did have to wait a few minutes for the gate, as the [nameless major airline] A320 that had landed 45 minutes prior was still loading up for its return to Salt Lake City.

Thankfully, it snowed only lightly for our departure and our outbound load was light enough to fill up on gas without a Denver tech stop. Our winter considerations did not stop with departure: it was snowing with low ceilings in Minneapolis. Still, with multiple long runways, oodles of snowplow capability, no performance restrictions, and Cat II approaches, Minneapolis is a walk in the park after Steamboat Springs. I smiled and relaxed as we cruised northeastbound over Nebraska with absolutely nothing to see on the ground and little chatter on the radio. Sometimes, a little enroute boredom is a wonderful thing.

Speaking of the Cub... sure to check out my "Taking Wing" column titled "Sunset Patrol" in the February issue of Flying magazine, out on newsstands now. It's the fourth column I've done since starting in November, and my personal favorite so far - it was a lot of fun to write!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

An Unfortunately Memorable First Flight

One of the things I like best about owning the Cub share (and being in the C170 club before that) is taking people flying who don't normally fly in small planes. This has included a number of coworkers, friends, members of my extended family, and even strangers who my family or friends put me in contact with. I advertise fairly vocally that I'm more than happy to take anybody flying who wants to go up. It provides a good excuse to fly, and gets me in the air more often than I would on my own. Seeing the spark of discovery on a neophytes' face - especially a kid - rekindles some of the enthusiasm of my own youth. And flying really is more enjoyable as a shared, social activity.

Honestly, the C170 was quite a bit better for this sort of thing than the Cub. The metal construction, larger size, side-by-side seating, more modern look (!), greater power, and an engine you don't have to hand-prop all put nervous flyers more at ease. I was able to fly sets of kids at the same time as their parent, which I can't do in the Cub. It was quite a bit more comfortable, and warmer in the winter. The Cub is a more adventurous airplane, which is great for Dawn and I and also for taking up fellow airline pilots who haven't flown small planes in a while, but not ideal for introducing someone to flight unless conditions are perfect. Nevertheless I've taken a few relative newcomers flying in the Cub, including my young nephew Dylan, who now rather likes it but still says he preferred the Cessna.

A few months ago I got a call from Katie, a good friend and NewCo First Officer. She told me that a mutual friend of ours and NewCo flight attendant, Anabel, was interested in learning to fly, and Katie suggested that we get in touch. Anabel and I talked a few times, I gave her some advice, and promised to take her up in the Cub  as she'd never flown in a small airplane. After that, though, our schedules refused to line up for weeks, and when they did the weather was poor. We had an exceptionally cold and snowy early winter. 

Finally, in mid-December, we were both off on a snowy Monday with a forecast for clearing skies and a balmy high of 21F. I figured that if I waited for any nicer of a day that fit our schedules, it wouldn't be until springtime, so I called up Anabel and suggested we go flying. Well, it turned out the forecast was a little optimistic: by the time we arrived at Airlake, the snow had just tapered off and the ceiling was still overcast at 1500 feet, the temperature was barely 15, and a brisk north wind made the wind chill considerably colder. I'd still fly under those circumstances myself, but I probably should have scrubbed it for an intro flight. After picking up Anabel and driving all the way to the airport, though, I went against my better judgement.

It took a while to preheat the engine and shovel all the snow from the front of the hangar, by which time our toes were thoroughly frozen. And then once we pulled the Cub out and Anabel was all strapped in, I couldn't get the damn thing started. Anabel had been looking at the uncowled little 75 horse Continental with a rather skeptical eye, and now she looked even more dubious as I fiddled with throttle, primer, and mags in between each futile throw of the prop. Finally it fired, but wouldn't stay running for more than 20 seconds. It likely didn't help that the plane hadn't flown in over a month. Rather than admit defeat, I dragged the preheater back out and gave the engine another 10 minutes of heat while our toes lost all feeling. That and an extra few squirts of primer did the trick: the little four-banger sputtered to live one cylinder at a time, and stayed running in spite of itself.

I gave the engine plenty of time to warm up before runup and takeoff. Once we were off the ground, we turned southward, following I-35. I flew for a few minutes, demonstrating climbs, descents, turns, and straight & level flight, then asked Anabel if she'd like to try her hand at it. She did so very gingerly, keeping her turns to about 15 degrees of bank, but was quite smooth and good at finding the right sight picture to hold her altitude. I suggested that she try a descent, and so she put the nose down a hair and reduced throttle by maybe 100 RPM. "You can bring the throttle back a little more than that," I told her.

Sput-sput-sput-silence! The engine quit completely; with my encouragement, Anabel had cut the throttle a bit too fast for the Continental's liking. "My airplane!" I said in what I hoped wasn't a terribly panicked voice, and pushed the nose well below the horizon. The Cub is an extremely draggy airplane, and with no power you have to be aggressive about getting the nose down or your airspeed will decay dramatically. Besides the threat of a stall, you don't want to let the prop stop, or you won't get another chance at reviving the engine until you've landed on a road or in a field.

I pulled the throttle to a bit above idle, then fiddled with it until the engine caught and came roaring back to life. We were down to about 600 feet above a snowy field that probably would have provided a decent landing surface, but it would have been a chilly half-mile walk to the nearest road. "We're fine now. You ok?" I queried, leaning forward from the back seat. Anabel turned halfway around and gave me a weak chuckle. We'd only been without power for a few seconds but it definitely caught both of our attention, and she was obviously uneasy.

I climbed to a higher altitude than we'd been at, explained that in cold weather you had to be pretty ginger with throttle changes, & said if it hadn't started we had a perfectly good field to land in and would have been just fine. I asked if she'd like to fly again and she said no, she'd rather just look around now. So we flew around for a bit looking at lakes and icehouses and mansions with hockey rinks in their backyards before heading back to Airlake.

The Cub wasn't done acting up yet. On landing, I was just about to turn off the runway at midfield for the fuel pumps when the engine quit once again, and wouldn't start when I got out and threw the prop a dozen times. So Anabel piled out of the airplane to help me push it off the runway and to the fuel pumps. How embarrassing. By the time it was fueled and back in the hangar, we were both frozen through and through. Our teeth stopped chattering about the time I dropped Anabel off back in Minneapolis.

I really hope I didn't kill Anabel's interest in learning to fly. Our flight was uncomfortably cold, getting the plane prepped and started was a pain in the butt, the engine cutout gave her a scare, and the second one on landing probably had her guessing that it happens all the time. I felt pretty bad about it and told her so, and said I'd take her up again when the weather was nicer and it'd be a lot more fun. Anabel's a pretty gutsy girl - she travels more often than I do, to more out-of-the-way places and sometimes solo - so I think she'll take me up on it. But I should have waited until a better day in the first place. We get a pretty limited number of opportunities to share the joy of flight with would-be pilots, and it's important to make a good first impression. I think that in the future, Cub flights with first-timers will have to wait for the open-door days of summer.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Happy Part 117 Day!

Well, today was the first day of the new Part 117 rest, flight, & duty time regulations, and it's been a long time coming. I frankly didn't think we'd ever see them come to fruition - the airline industry has successfully defeated updated rest regulations several times in the past, and they fought hard against them again this time. I don't think they're completely done fighting, actually. In the last few days I noticed United has been blaming their delays and cancellations on Part 117, conveniently failing to note that the two hubs most affected (IAH & EWR) are home to some 800 rampers about to be furloughed, their jobs outsourced, their pink slips an early Christmas present. No, I'm sure the real problem is being unable to work those lazy pilots 16 hours a day!

The new regs are complicated, but here's the cliff notes version, for domestic unaugmented (2-person) operations:
  • Daily maximum flight time is upped to 9 hours (it was 8) if the day's showtime is between 5am and 8pm; otherwise it remains at 8 hours. This is a hard limit, unlike the old "legal to start, legal to finish." In other words, if I'm scheduled for 3 flights at 8.5 hours, and I overblock the second flight by an hour, I am no longer legal for the third flight, wheras I would have been under the old regs. 
  • Minimum rest used to be anywhere between 8 and 12 hours. It is now a flat 10 hours, with at least 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep opportunity (i.e., behind the door at the hotel). The crew must also have had a 30 hour rest period sometime within the last 168 hours (7 days) - it used to be 24 hours within the last 7 calendar days.
  • Maximum duty time ("Flight Duty Period," or FDP) is now determined by a table according to show time and number of legs for the day. It can be as little as 9 hours or as much as 14 hours. It can be extended for operational delays by up to 2 hours with the concurrence of the dispatcher and the PIC, but only once beyond 30 minutes until the crew gets a 30 hour rest period.
  • A crewmember may not exceed 60 hours on duty within a rolling 168 hour (7 day) period, or 190 hours on duty in a rolling 672 hour (28 day) period. A crewmember may not exceed 100 hours of flight time in a rolling 672 hour period, or 1000 hours in the last 365 days. This replaces the old 30 hours in 7 days, 100 hours in a calendar month, and 1000 hours in a calendar year.
Surprisingly, or perhaps not, the majority of my fellow airline pilots aren't crazy about the new regs. I think it's partly airline pilot bitchiness, partly resistance to change, and partly the fact that the average line pilot didn't get worked to FAA maximums very often under the old regs (especially at mainline). One of the main gripes is that Part 117 is too complicated. It's certainly complicated; it's based on the science of sleep and fatigue, and as there are many factors that affect fatigue, it's necessarily complex. I don't expect that anybody will be able to memorize the new regultions as we all memorized and used the old regs. We'll need to refer to tables and cheat sheets often, and will be using smart phone and tablet apps to track our cumulative flight and duty times as the new rolling limits are much harder to track than the old calendar months and days. The fact that these tools are available now is all the more reason to move to a science-based system.

The other complaint is that the new regulations will decrease pilot efficiency and therefore result in more time away from home. This is undoubtedly true. Domestically, the inability to schedule 8 hour overnights will create more 32 hour layovers. Internationally, many 24 hour layovers will become 36 and 48 hour layovers. The Flight Duty Period table will reduce how much flying can be done in a day for anyone doing high-frequency, short-haul flying. Essentially, nearly everybody is going to take a hit in time off so that a minority can have much less fatiguing schedules.

I see that as a worthy tradeoff. Lord knows I love my time off, but I also absolutely hate flying tired. I've written about flying fatigued here before, and there have been quite a few times that I didn't blog about. I can say that over half of the serious mistakes I've seen made on the JungleBus occurred towards the end of a long day or after a short overnight. And my airline didn't even schedule to FAR maximums very often compared to some. Considering the regionals that regularly scheduled their pilots to 15+ hours on duty, it's a miracle we haven't had more crashes. The new regulations put everyone on a level playing field, so that nobody can cut corners on safety to gain a cost advantage. As for our passengers, they ought to rest much easier knowing that their pilots are much less likely to be flying fatigued than before.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Hudson Helo Highway

Someday Dawn and I hope to own an airplane of our own, but in the meantime owning a share of the Cub works well for us, and even better is having a few friends who own airplanes and let us borrow them. One of these friends is my ex-student Johnny, who owns a beautiful 1984 Piper Warrior that I've flown a number of times, including a 4 day, 25 hour repositioning/instructional flight last year from California to Connecticut. He's left me on his insurance and has urged me to use his plane whenever I like, an offer we decided to take him up on over Dawn's Christmas break. We wanted to visit Johnny and his family as well as some friends in Sea Girt, NJ that we hadn't seen in some time, and flying seemed a much more enjoyable way to do it than spending hours on the various turnpikes.

December 27 turned out to be a perfect day for flying in the northeast: clear, sunny, just a little breezy, and unseasonably warm. We departed from Chester Airport (KSNC) at 10:30am and turned westward along the Connecticut shoreline, talking to the tower controllers at New Haven and Bridgeport. We passed just south of White Plains, where a long line of bizjets were waiting to take off, before dropping down to 1000 feet to stay below the Class B. Joining the Hudson River south of the Tappan Zee Bridge, we turned downstream, hugging the western bank, and listening to nearly nonstop banter on 123.05 MHz. We would be running the infamous Hudson River VFR corridor, a very thin strip of uncontrolled airspace that runs through the LGA/JFK/EWR Class B at 1300' and below. As such, it is very heavily trafficked, and its use requires having the NYC TAC chart on board, turning on all your lights, and making CTAF position reports at six mandatory checkpoints.

"Cherokee 408, Alpine Tower southbound at 1000." I could barely get a word in edgewise on the CTAF. Many of the position reports were for checkpoints other than the six I was familiar with, so I surmised they were helicopters over Manhattan or the East River. A mile from the George Washington Bridge, a helicopter called "GWB southbound at 800," and I soon picked him out ahead and below us. We passed him close enough to wave, and then we started to catch another helicopter. Meanwhile a steady stream of southbound traffic passed on our left, again mostly helicopters with the occasional fixed wing thrown in. It reminded me of the Fisk arrival to Oshkosh, except this traffic was more closely spaced! I was kept so busy looking for traffic, calling the checkpoints, and making sure I stayed clear of airspace that I scarcely had any time at all to look at Manhattan's spectacular skyline just off our left wingtip. Dawn busily snapped photos as we cruised over New York Harbor. In what seemed like no time at all, we cleared the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge ("VZ" on the CTAF) and struck out across lower New York Bay towards Sandy Spit. From here it was a very quick jaunt to Monmouth Executive Airport (KBLM), where we landed on Runway 32 just before noon.

We were met at Monmouth by our friends and their three rambunctious boys, ages 2, 6 & 8. Their dad is a corporate pilot who I flight instructed with back in the ADP days; he hasn't flown GA in years so I took the kids on a half-hour flight over their hometown and along the Jersey shore. We found their house and school, and circled some fishing boats headed to sea through the Manasquan inlet. Elijah, age 6, was sitting up front, so I let him fly the airplane for a few minutes. All three seemed to enjoy the flight immensely.

Our stay in Sea Girt was cut short by a fairly strong low moving up the eastern seaboard, and so we left Monmouth at first light on Sunday December 29. We beat the rain out but the sky was already soggy and leaden. The New York skyline was much more bleak on our second transit of the Hudson corridor, but this time I could at least take some time to sightsee, for the CTAF was completely quiet and we didn't spy a single helicopter. Aided by a strong southwesterly wind, it took barely an hour to cover the 130nm route back to Chester, where I landed on the rolling 2700'x50' Runway 17 in a light crosswind.

As we thanked Johnny profusely for the use of his airplane, he urged us to come back and fly it any time. Dawn's never been to Rhode Island and Newport is only a short hop from Chester, so perhaps a Newport flying-sailing trip is in order this summer. I'm looking forward to it; I have found it thoroughly enjoyable to explore the less familiar corners of the country by small airplane. Perhaps someday we'll even do it in an airplane of our own!