Sunday, March 15, 2015

Fuel: How much is enough?

#1 of My Series: Behind the Cockpit Door

“You never can have too much fuel, unless you are on fire.”  That’s what pilots jokingly tell each other until they realize that there’s a point at which having more fuel goes from being a good thing to being a big problem.  

Returning to my Boeing 757-300 in Las Vegas one day after checking our flight plan for the return trip to Houston, I was approached by a terrified fueler who confessed to me that he had confused my airplane with the one parked at the gate next door which was headed for Newark, NY.  Horrified at having put almost 3 extra hours of fuel in my plane, he explained that the flight to Newark always parked at this gate and it was his mistake in not reading carefully the ship number painted on the nose gear door before he started to fuel the airplane to be sure he had the correct airplane.  

Now it would be a critical issue as to whether we could make the flight without having to defuel the airplane since we had both a maximum takeoff weight (which was no problem on this relatively short flight), but more importantly, a maximum landing weight concern.

You might think that fueling an airliner for an upcoming flight is akin to refueling your car but precise fuel planning and then verifying that the airplane has the fuel on board (FOB) which you requested is another crucial concern and is definitely at the top of every pilot’s critical preflight list. 

When considering fuel for a flight, pilots thoughts range from do I have enough fuel, to will I have to fight with the dispatcher (sitting in his comfy office many miles away) for extra fuel, to am I Iegal to begin or continue the flight, to do they have enough time to get me all the fuel I will need, to will the airplane actually be heavier than planned and burn more than the forecast fuel or possibly need to land overweight (which will require a time-consuming inspection at the destination)? All these issues influence how much fuel is actually boarded for any particular flight. In this case, the key word was one small digit. The fueler had put the fuel load for ship 868 on ship 861 and created a real problem.

Landing overweight has many ramifications, not the least of which are required inspections, decreased tire and landing gear life as well as expensive schedule delays for all involved.  We did fly that flight with the fuel load as wrongly boarded, spending the full flight time carefully calculating how to burn up as much fuel as possible in order not to land overweight. We had to decline any short cuts or expeditious vectors that ATC kindly offered us, explaining that we may have been in the fuel-saving mode yesterday, but today it was a case of needing to burn the excess before reaching Houston to prevent a possible overweight landing.

Having had a career filled mostly with the opposite problem (not enough fuel on board, rather than too much), it was eye-opening to see how the reverse problem could also consume much of one’s focus on what should have been a routine flight.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Learn from the Mistakes of Others: You’ll never live long enough to make them all yourself!

That’s the watchword for aviation. As a professional pilot for over 36 years, I've always read all the accident reports trying to absorb the pertinent details for use in flight and on the ground.  I even keep a list of “gotchas” to remind me, in the heat of battle, to pay attention to seemingly small details which can lead to disaster.

While cleaning up a seemingly minor spill during a routine flight from Houston to LAX  my own clumsiness made me remember the tragedy that resulted from a spilled cup of coffee on the instrument pedestal (“Fate is the Hunter” by Ernie Gann) when I fumbled my water bottle squirting liquid over a panel that controls our map display.  It made a mess of my screen, crowding the display with unwanted GPS fixes as we descended into the LAX metro area.  Upon landing I called our maintenance techs and ‘fessed up, describing my faux pas and the type of liquid involved. such details can be of real importance in helping the tech staff fix problems that can be, if the substance involved contains sugar, a major headache.

More recently, I asked for more fuel for a particular flight and :15 later realized I’d read the flight plan wrong, mistaking one number for another.  I quickly cancelled my request for additional gas which saved everyone time, money and hassles. 

As a Critical Incident Response Volunteer (CIRP), I’ve heard many stories that crowd my brain whenever a similar situation arises, from not ensuring that the push tug is well clear of the airplane before we begin to taxi to ignoring a little “pop” noise from a circuit breaker. 

Mess up? Fess up.  That’s the corollary to “learn from the mistakes of others.”  Hiding mistakes can be deadly and given the immense amount of brownie points we get from admitting them, there’s no reason not to use them as learning tools. Mistakes can be your best friends if you’ll learn quickly from them and use the knowledge wisely in the future.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Automation: Great for Finding the Right Airport

 Years ago, as a low-time pilot approaching San Diego’s Lindbergh Field at night in IFR weather, I managed to get lost by failing to follow the automation telling me where the runway was located and relied, instead, on my eyes…to lead me astray.  I made the common  mistake of breaking out of the clouds, seeing the city lights below me, and then, distracted from focusing on the instruments,  let my course wander and decided that the first airport I could see MUST be the right one.  Thank you, ATC, for preventing me from landing at Miramar Naval Air Station!

Finding the correct airport, particularly at night is tough to do visually…you need to rely on the instruments and then keep the automation in the forefront of your consciousness and NOT rely on the visual.  Here’s an example of when automation definitely wins over the manual mode.

Don’t relinquish the help that automation can provide you…until you KNOW you’ve found the airport…and the right one at that.  In good VFR weather,  ATC will push pilots to accept a visual approach to an airport to facilitate a higher acceptance/landing rate.  If you accept a visual approach too early, you assume the responsibility for your own separation and finding the airport. Don’t let your ego push you to tell the controller “airport in sight”unless you really DO have the airport in sight.  Their traffic services are good ones that can keep you headed in the right direction and safely separated from other traffic.

My recent airline landing in OGG (Maui) was full of queries from ATC asking, “don’t you see the airport?” I told them “No” and that we wanted vectors…just to make sure we had enough time to lose the necessary altitude and position the airplane on a stabilized approach.  Maui’s got a very short runway (for airliners with high approach speeds) which requires good concentration and no last minute scrambling…which can easily happen when you allow ATC to cut you loose (read: accept a visual approach) before you’re really ready, willing and able.

It’s easy to ID the wrong airport, particularly at night, when you’re tired or clouds obscure some or all of the surrounding terrain features.  Lots of lights can also confuse your brain and make what was easy to identify in the day, very tricky at night.…play it safe and use the automation…this is one time when it can be a life saver.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Automation: No substitute for Experience

The Asiana crash demonstrates that the easiest approach (usually visual approaches are considered to be less complicated than instrument approaches) isn't quite what it appears to be and is more complex than first meets the eye.

I was a manual pilot turned auto by moving to an automated airplane 10 years ago.  I spent time trying to figure out how to fly that manual approach into SFO using all that automation I’d learned to use, but I couldn't do it…it still required a lot of manual input and forethought.

In the case of the Asiana crash, we have a pilot trained mostly on automation now needing to switch to his manual skills, and probably recognizing this fact at the last moment.  This approach appears easy, but in reality it’s quite demanding and requires careful attention to many details, particularly the relationship between power and pitch in large swept wing jet aircraft. That is, when you decrease the power to idle, the airplane descends very rapidly and you need to increase the power BEFORE you think you need it in order to level off or decrease your descent rate.

Having flown this approach many times, I spent many hours trying to figure out how to fly it using the automation, since I was supposed to be using those modes as much as possible. It took me several visits to SFO, flying this same approach over and over, each time a little differently, to determine that I’d need to pay extra careful attention while descending on the final approach segment.  It took a good deal of experience to realize that the approach couldn't be flown in the auto mode…the airplane just wouldn't do it smoothly and quickly enough to be viable. 

One of the greatest traps is thinking that since the approach is a “visual” one, it’s going to be relatively simple.  When you’re tired and hoping for a simple ending to the hours of endurance aloft, it’s easy to overlook or ignore the fine details of this approach that happen very quickly as you near the runway. Namely, finding yourself quite high when you’re quite close to the runway and needing to do something about it promptly, not wait for the airplane’s automation to fix the problem.

Changing from steady state flight to descent takes time and that means miles. If you don’t start descent at the very precise moment it’s allowed, you end up being higher and higher than you should be, requiring more and more skill to get the airplane down to the proper approach slope.  Not only do you have to know when to start down (and how steep to  make the descent) but you need to know when to arrest that descent so you can regain that desired 3 degree path to the runway.  All this data needs to be considered long before you begin the approach so that you’ll be ready and have the airplane properly slowed and configured for that last minute rapid descent rate to the runway.

I've found it’s important to be skeptical of any seemingly easy maneuver.  At SFO, I would continually ask myself WHY there was no automated visual approach to Runway 28L, while Runway 28R has a very precise automated approach path that utilized a curving flight path and a normal descent rate.  But 28L is another story; the only automation I found useful was the basic wing-leveler and heading select mode of the autopilot and then it was iffy at best.  Mostly I’d disconnect the autopilot and use the visual slope indicator (VASI) next to the runway threshold to judge my descent for the last portion of the approach.

As they've said for so many years:  Aviation, like the sea, is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect.  This appears to have been a case of several of these factors joining forces at just the wrong time.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Automation: Use it appropriately

The buzz this week is a report stating that the FAA finds pilot’s manual flying skills may be rusty due to excessive reliance on automation.  Although I can agree with some of their findings, I’m more concerned about the issue of when to use which mode?  I think the bigger problem with automation is when to turn it off and fly manually?  Or, just as important, when should you turn on the automation and let it do the work the system was designed to do? 

So how detrimental is our generation of automated airplanes (or better said, the automated pilots) to themselves and the traveling public?  When should we, as pilots, switch from automatic to manual flight…or vice versa?  That’s the real question.  The appropriate use of the technology and deciding when it’s best to use one mode or the other can be tricky, especially when you've been trained to use all of the newest automated features. 

I consider myself an inter-generational or semi-automatic pilot.  I was raised on manual flying, but taught to use the autopilot to help me do my job.  About 10 years ago I transitioned to the Boeing 757/767 which has the advanced automation features (lateral and vertical navigation integrated with the autopilot) which now concerns the FAA. It’s easy to flip switches, but the real concern is knowing when to take over and use our manual piloting skills, honed through years of experience, to do what the automation seems reluctant to do, won’t do, or can’t do quickly enough.

Automation works extremely well to relieve heavy and ongoing workload situations which require constant monitoring of multiple inputs.  Automation is designed to fly the airplane smoothly and change modes with the least amount of fright-inducing pitch/power changes.  I recall doing my simulator training on go-arounds/missed approaches one afternoon, then riding on the real airplane later that evening which had to do a go-around for real. As a passenger, I was impressed with how smoothly the plane transitioned from descending flight on the approach to adding power smoothly, transitioning to a climb on the pull-up to complete the go-around or escape-the-ground maneuver.  The automation did a great job which ensured safety and passenger comfort.
The issues of when to implement, and how to best utilize automation has always been a concern.  I recall flying the mostly manual MD80 from 1988 to 2003 and hearing lots of stories about the problems with “automation obsession” which could easily distract a pilot from that most important of all jobs, flying the airplane.  “Click it all off” they told the pilots flying automated airplanes. If it’s not doing what it needs to do below 10,000 feet, you need to have your head up and looking around, not buried in the button-pushing process of trying to make the Flight Management Computer (FMC) do its thing.

Several other questions come to my mind as a transitional pilot, given my inbred suspicion of too much automation:

Do younger pilots, trained with more video games and simulators have a tendency to use it more or perhaps too much?  Do they use it when it's not appropriate based on growing up in a highly automated world?

Are they concerned about someone thinking they can’t hack the automated flight regime, can’t push all the buttons correctly? Or maybe they really don’t know how to make the automation do that complex departure?

Are they appropriately suspicious of what the automation is telling them? Do they back up the use of the autopilot with their own on-going assessment?  That’s where experience comes in.  We have a saying when the automation is doing something weird which can be a real trap:  “Why did it do that?  What’s it going to do next?”  I like to have a good plan in mind for what I’m going to do next if the automation doesn't do what I think it should.  Does everyone think this way? If not, why not?

Why do they turn it off early on an approach, when they perhaps should leave it ON?  Most landings I see performed by younger co-pilots are manual from 1000' down to touchdown.  I, on the other hand, mostly let the autopilot fly the airplane down to 200’, THEN I turn it off and replicate how the autopilot was flying, which I watch very carefully, just waiting for it to do something I don’t like so I can take over manually.

We DO have a choice of when to use automation and the key is to use that choice wisely.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

How to Succeed in Aviation

I’ve always found aviation to be an instant friendship, as well as an instant acceptance field particularly among flight crews. I’ve spent over 35 years as a major airline pilot and 20+ years helping pilots advance their careers and continue to see the importance of 4 basic ideas for a successful career and a fulfilling life.  These are:
  1. Show your passion for your chosen work (flying in this instance)
  2. Show those who can help you that you’re serious
  3. Be proactive on your own behalf
  4. Make it easy for others to help you

Most important is to show your passion for flying.  Whatever your niche may be, show others who can help you that you are serious.  For pilots that means hanging out at the airport, which we’ve all done (and enjoy doing), talking flying, learning from others, sharing the excitement of aviation with others and letting them know you’re EXCITED.  Go that extra mile to let them know it’s a pleasure to be there and you’re ready to get involved.
Then comes the part that counts…showing others who can help you that you are serious.  My book, Flight Guide for Success: Tips and Tactics for the Aspiring Airline Pilot, is all about demonstrating to those who can help you that you’re serious about aviation and will make sacrifices to show that you’re not just a ‘wannabe’.  Remember that we have all been helped by someone at some point in our careers and were able to move up thanks to their assistance.  As we advance, it’s our job to help those coming up behind us.  It is important to be concerned about making sure we help the REAL ones, not just the ‘wannabes’.  Therefore, your job is to demonstrate that you’ll make good use of the advice received, follow through with the job leads and report back to your advisor on your progress.  Staying in touch is the essence of successful networking.
Being proactive on your own behalf is crucial to your success.  If you need to find a contact in a particular company, talk with your source first, then send them an email reminding them of your needs. Provide them with the info they need to do the task you have requested, be it an address or a refresher on how you met and why you feel the reference would be appropriate.  Don’t make them extract the information from you. 

Finally, make it easy for others to help you.  If it’s a letter of recommendation you’re seeking, you can give them a de-identified letter that someone else has prepared for you, helping them to know more about you and what others think of you. If you’ve had special interactions with them, give them a short list of what you’ve accomplished.  Rather than making them feel it’s a burden or a big job to comply with your request, show them you’ve practically done their work for them. Remember, give them the tools to help you do what you’re asking for and you’ll quickly get what you need. 

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Aviation Etiquette – Crucial Concepts for Confined Workspaces

Many pilots may not have experienced the joys and sorrows of working in a normal office environment but never the less they need to learn that many of the same manners are needed for successful piloting in a multi-pilot or single pilot space, particularly if passengers are close by.

Did you do most of your flying solo or as single pilot? Working together has many CRM aspects often discussed in flight training, but not much has been said about how to improve or maintain good interpersonal relations with other pilots as well as your passengers. Professional Standards committees at airlines are charged with the duty of advising (or chastising) pilots on how to deal with issues that bare on pilot professionalism. ProStan has the inside track and what you should be doing, but all too often your first contact with them is when you screw up…and likely you don’t even know you what it is you did or when you did it.

Maybe you’re like me and got a splash of cold water at the end of my probationary year as a Second Officer at a major airline. Back then, they had no real orientation for female or non-military pilots, so it was up to each of us to figure out what the protocol was and how to survive in the airline’s very military-like environment. I didn’t realize many things about being the junior-most pilot in the cockpit and how to deal with often-times cranky and eccentric senior captains. It took me a while, for example, to learn that even though I could quietly slip back to the cabin to get a drink or use the lav, it wasn’t a good idea to leave without clearly announcing my departure lest I be needed in an emergency. So I soon adopted the “I’m going back to get a drink; do either of you (pilots) need anything?” line to clearly advise them of my impending departure from the cockpit.

Other unwritten rules dealt with who signs the roster sheet at the hotel for over nights and in what order. Obviously there was some special pecking order that I knew nothing about and when I got my first glaring look for signing the wrong line, I quickly learned to sign last, given my juniority.

As the years rolled by, I learned the ropes, and came to realize that although there are various types of etiquette for different kinds of office environments, in the cockpit, it really boils down to common courtesy and consideration for your fellow pilot.

Starting with the common workplace niceties are your personal hygiene, speech, actions and mannerisms. Many of these are directly transferable to the cockpit or if you’re in a larger cabin class airplane, to both front and rear work areas of the airplane.

Of primary importance is dressing smart, smelling good, and looking professional so you’re welcomed into the group and not shunned by your co workers. One could write volumes about interpersonal relations, but I’ll just mention a few of the non-personality related issues that we can all learn from.

Sweet smelling (or preferably no smell at all) is VERY important in the confined space of the cockpit, regardless of its size. Daily showers, change of shirts, socks, etc. are essential and may have not been brought up in the “how to be a pilot” manual for your C152.

Many years ago while in the beginning stages of flight instructing, I could barely endure the 1 hour lesson, given the odors coming from the left seat. At the end of the session, I had to tell my new student that since the cockpit was a very small confined space, I’d take a shower daily and use a light fragrance (which if he didn’t like he should tell me) and he, in turn, would do the same. Next day he showed up showered and sweet smelling. Whew…now the fact that he never came back for his 3rd lesson…that’s another story.

Normal workplace odors can be greatly magnified in the small confines of a cockpit. From the reeking of French fries that you brought aboard for lunch to smelling of too much perfume worn by unknowing flight attendants or passengers (if you’re in a charter or instructional situation), all can be very unpleasant and hard to dissipate. The best solution is to prevent the problem before it occurs. Finish your fries before you board and keep your perfume/aftershave to a bare minimum.

We all have to eat sometime, but choosing the time carefully and inquiring of the other crewmember if it’s OK with them, often can save you lots of grief. Keep your picnic layout to a minimum and consider the problems associated with eating smelly foods (onions can make the cockpit reek for some time) which might better be consumed at the time of purchase.

It should be obvious the problems that can arise when food or drink is spilled on workplace surfaces in the cockpit. Careful planning will avoid a dangerous situation like the one I had while shooting an approach to LAX. Having spilled just a few drops of water onto the range selector for the FMC (Flight Management Computer) I was horrified to see my glass HSI screen totally filled with every intersection within a 50 mile radius, completely blocking the course information I needed to view and making it impossible to fly the approach. Quickly ‘fessing up, I told the Copilot it was necessary for him to fly the approach and landing, saving the day. Fortunately things were back to normal once we reached the gate where I did confess my sins to maintenance and asked them to check it out. Heat gun in hand, they arrived to fix the problem and thanked me for my honesty. Plain water, they said, can be dried quickly. Sticky substances like soda or sugared coffee are an expensive hassle, mandating to the remove and replace solution.

Keeping your workplace neat and leaving it orderly for the next crew is important. Consideration of those sitting behind you, or luggage stored in tight spaces is also important. Clear handwriting for ATIS or clearance copying as well as paper shuffling in the manner approved by the captain rather than something you have invented. Crumpling up all your Jeppesen revisions and throwing them into a limited size communal cockpit trashbag can quickly fill it to capacity, while stacking old pages neatly, returning them to the revision envelope for a neat, low profile disposal works much better and keeps annoyances to a minimum.

Much of what I’m describing should be obvious, common sense interpersonal skills, but then I’m also guilty of not knowing when I started my multi-pilot career some specific points of the protocol that seems to have developed with multi-crew flying.

Many of us make mistakes we don’t even now we’re making…and that many others won’t tell you…unless you ask. Asking is hard, so better to learn about what’s proper and what will get you a “see me” from the chief pilot, or a place on the “do not fly with” list.

Aviation full of traditions from cutting of shirt tails for newly soloing students, to strict sign-in procedures for crew members checking into hotels for a layover. Learning how it’s done is akin to developing a new set of rules of the road. If you’re not sure, ask how it’s done or whether the other pilot(s) have a preference. Best show your ignorance and demonstrate your willingness to learn, rather than put your foot in your mouth or make a soon-to-be-regretted mistake that will earn you the wrath of pilots for years to come.